Doctor Who series 8 ‘Listen’ review: smart, scary, superb
'Blink', 'The Girl in the Fireplace' and now 'Listen' - the best of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who always shares a similar ethos. It’s dark and fun in equal measure, and driven by a slew of strong ideas, playing with time and chronology in a smart, interesting fashion.
From its very different pre-titles sequence onwards, there’s so much to absorb in ‘Listen’. One requirement of a great Doctor Who episode is scaring the kiddies and here Moffat again preys expertly on childhood fears.
Why – as children and (whether or not we admit it) as adults – are we so afraid of something lurking under the bed? Why do we all share that same nightmare? Perhaps because something really is hiding there – a shadow, a ‘silent passenger’.
Like another modern Doctor Who classic, Russell T Davies’ standout offering ‘Midnight’, there’s a level of ambiguity to ‘Listen’ that’s pleasing rather than frustrating. Was there really some great unseen threat or, like Danny’s dreams of being a soldier, was it all just an invention of the mind?
This sort of spooky tale works far better with Peter Capaldi’s mad wizard Doctor – a somewhat callous figure we’re not even sure we completely trust – than it would’ve with the comforting presence of a buoyant Matt Smith. It’s perhaps the first true Capaldi episode, where it’s near-impossible to imagine anyone else stepping into his shoes.
Moffat’s script furthers the themes of this series – not just this Doctor’s ongoing struggle with the notion that he’s a hero (“a soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun”) but also his inability to accept the extent of his own power and influence.
Danny Pink (Dan the soldier man) is back this week, with the revelation that his entire life, almost his entire persona, was shaped by one thoughtless act from the Doctor. Delving into Danny’s past (or should that be ‘Rupert’s’?) does more than flesh out Samuel Anderson’s sensitive squaddie, though. It also allows ‘Listen’ to again make terrific use of Clara (Jenna Coleman).
Capitalising on work already done filling in the gaps in her personality and personal life, Moffat makes her background as a teacher absolutely vital, as she’s able to quickly strike up a warm rapport with a child.
It’s only a pity that ‘Listen’ also provides the strongest indicator yet that Clara is for the chop. With the heavy implication that Orson Pink is her grandson, the character’s departure seems all but spelled out, though I wouldn’t put it past Moffat to pull out another twist.
'Listen' certainly contains enough shockers of its own. At its midpoint, the episode shifts not only in location but tone, transitioning from a dark fairytale vibe to more of a sci-fi chiller, somewhat akin to Danny Boyle's 2007 film Sunshine or Doctor Who's own 'The Waters of Mars'.
Then there’s the sublime bow with which Moffat ties the whole thing off – a surprise trip to Gallifrey linking what seemed like a standalone episode into last November’s 50th anniversary special and the broader mythology of Doctor Who as a whole.
This is an episode that will probably receive a few complaints from the ‘too complicated / too scary’ brigade. On the former point, I’d say give the kids some credit, they’re smarter than you think. On the latter? ‘Listen’ is never gory or truly horrific. These are the sort of fun chills that kids relish, and that give adults a pleasant shiver up the spine too.
Intelligent, romantic and just scary enough, ‘Listen’ is either a moody tale of the supernatural or it’s a clever reflection on the mind’s own ability to fool and govern itself, but either way it’s brilliant. - GW
The Script ‘Superheroes’ single review - Will have fans sitting tight
The Script said they ‘tried everything and definitely stretched the sound’ for their fourth album, No Sound Without Silence. Lead single ‘Superheroes’ certainly seems to make a strong statement about the Irish band’s return, but is it strong enough to justify The Script’s meandering attempts to make an experimental album six years into their established career?
To the joy, or perhaps disappointment of Script fans, ‘Superheroes’ plays out like a logical continuation of the group’s oeuvre rather than a radical new indulgence - even if Danny O’Donoghue nearly stumbles into rapping on the aside, “Every day every hour/ Turn the pain into power”. What it does do, though, is fuse together the group’s familiar, emotive lyrics alongside Coldplay-esque pianos and an epic chorus likely to have fans sitting tight for the new album. It may not be quite the stretch of sound promised, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Robot of Sherwood’ review: Smart, fun and very silly
Doctor Who has always thrived on giving the legends of horror and fantasy a science-fiction twist. Yet pre-broadcast, the Mark Gatiss-penned ‘Robot of Sherwood’ felt like a risk - perhaps because Peter Capaldi’s darker Doctor looks and feels so thoroughly out-of-place in a jolly, Errol Flynn-inspired romp.
But rather than shy away from that mismatch, Gatiss absolutely embraces it - casting the Doctor as a grouchy counterpart to the unremittingly enthusiastic Robin, existing to undercut the camp and ‘hang a lampshade’ on a few of the episode’s more absurd moments.
Yes, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is silly and tongue-in-cheek - lighter fare than 'Into the Dalek' and even 'Deep Breath'. But it’s also smart, eschewing slapstick and broad humour for wit - for all the Doctor’s distaste of it, Gatiss’ script is rife with great “bantering” - and comical subversion.
There’s much fun to be had in the writer’s nods to and dismantling of the popular image of Robin Hood - this version’s flamboyant persona, and in particular the boisterous laugh that so irritates the Doctor, comes straight from 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Da Vinci’s Demons lead Tom Riley completely delivers as Robin too, nailing not only the character’s more cartoonish traits, but also the moments of emotional truth - the sad soul he conceals from all but a few - when the script demands it.
In its first act, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ tips its hat to every iteration of the Hood myth, from Kevin Costner’s Hollywood spectacle Prince of Thieves to Disney’s animated outing, delivering all of the familiar elements one would expect - the Merry Men, mooning over Marian and an archery contest with a dastardly Sheriff - before injecting a healthy dose of sci-fi.
Though it feels a tad lazy reverting back to a robotic threat so soon after ‘Deep Breath’, the Robot Knights’ impressive design and distinctive death-rays ensure that they remain a memorable threat.
It was a canny move to cast a recognisable face - not to mention an acting talent - like Ben Miller as this week’s human antagonist, since the Sheriff of Nottingham is on paper a rather straightforward and uninspiring villain.
Lascivious and cruel as one might expect, the Sheriff holds few surprises - even his true nature is heavily implied ahead of the big reveal. It’s a pity, given Gatiss’ usual talent for delivering colourful cads, but Miller at least lends a little charisma to what is a rather flat antagonist.
Of all the cast though, this episode really belongs to Jenna Coleman. The actress is not only charming and funny throughout, but is also more than capable of carrying proceedings when her co-star Capaldi is off screen - witness the scene in which she entices secrets out of the conceited Sheriff.
It helps that she’s finally being given some material that’s worthy of her - no longer Little Miss Perfect, the Clara of Doctor Who series 8 is spikier, more worldly and has heaps more personality than the character we met last year.
She almost feels like a different character altogether, with a lot more of the real Coleman appearing to filter through - even her Lancashire accent is more prominent than it ever was before. “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…”
Consciously or not, Mark Gatiss always writes Doctor Who with the sensibility of a loving fan - and ‘Robot of Sherwood’ references not just this series’ ongoing arc, but also the wider history of Doctor Who (Did you catch the mention of a Miniscope?), its popular traits (“It’s always the screwdriver!”) and contains plenty of in-jokes for the faithful (Who else spotted Patrick Troughton, in-character as Robin?).
Gatiss’ enthusiasm is always infectious and for its first 30 minutes, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ rockets along with a great deal of vigour and fun. Unfortunately, it does stumble a little at the final hurdle, and once Robin leaps out of the Sheriff’s window, all plot logic goes out with him.
Even by the episode’s own flimsy sci-fi logic, the notion that a spaceship without enough gold to reach orbit could be propelled hundreds more miles by the addition of a single arrow’s worth makes no sense.
The truth is though, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is so fun, so fast-paced, that the majority will likely forgive its plot holes, its limp climax and its lack of real menace. A sense of humour goes a long way and for the most part, this latest Doctor Who is a hugely enjoyable slice of light entertainment, perfectly pitched and buoyed by strong performances. - GW
Maroon 5 album review: ‘Sounding more like a boyband than ever’
Maroon 5 have always struggled with their image. Frontman Adam Levine’s boyish good looks meant that early on in their career they were routinely mistaken for a boyband, despite having the traditional rock band setup. “People didn’t know what to make of us,” he admitted in a recent interview, but it didn’t stop their debut album Songs About Jane launching them to chart success and initially pinpointing them as soft-rock funk-masters.
Five albums in and Maroon 5’s identity crisis is a whole different beast. Aptly named V (oh, the originality!), I’d like to think the sextet’s new title is a knowing V-sign to the decade of growing stigma they continue to endure. Let’s face it, it hasn’t stopped them selling near on 20 million records. Mega hit ‘Moves Like Jagger’ helped them some way to that number, and much like 2012’s Overexposed, new album V feels like a formula to further that appeal.
Case in point, lead single 'Maps' is an unashamed retread of that magic equation; an addictive refrain and Adam’s soul-flecked vocals brought together by the biggest pop producers in the biz. It’s a template that is replicated throughout the remainder of the album. 'Animals' swirls in its toe-tapping beats and eye-rolling clichés (“you’re like a drug that’s killing me”), while 'Leaving California' is by-numbers stadium pop with a lights-in-the-air chorus. Elsewhere, the Doctor Luke-produced 'Sugar'skirts very close to Katy Perry in drag, and 'It Was Always You' is a fizzing ’90s throwback with its trickling guitars.
It’s all relatively harmless (even with the tenuous explicit warning on a handful of songs), and there are (whisper it!) some really great moments, but my issue is that, under the helm of Maroon 5, it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s foolproof pop performed by a band that has never really been fully comfortable with that tag. It made me apprehensive about 'My Heart Is Open' - a duet with my precious Gwen Stefani - but thankfully it resulted in one of the album’s most heartfelt highlights (and breathe). That said, nothing here is enough to push Maroon 5’s image forward. In fact, they’re sounding more like a boyband than ever before. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Into the Dalek’ review: Meet the new Doctor
Meet the new Doctor.
Caught in the throes of regeneration mania, Peter Capaldi’s newly-minted Time Lord was a bit all over the place last week - and so was his debut adventure, the ambitious but flawed 'Deep Breath'.
But where last Saturday’s Doctor Who was messy, muddled and overlong, this week’s ‘Into the Dalek’ is pacy and sharp - from the off, the whole affair positively bristles with energy, Capaldi clearly having a ball rattling off Steven Moffat and Phil Ford’s wonderfully witty words.
In stark contrast to his predecessors - both of whom were adolescent bundles of energy - this new Doctor is calm, cool and controlled. But there’s also (as promised) the odd hint of the snarling beast beneath - this is a man with burning hatred in his hearts.
Flitting between benevolently alien and openly hostile, Capaldi’s Doctor frequently recalls Tom Baker’s here, and just as Baker’s second outing - 1975’s ‘The Ark in Space’ - felt like his first real chance to spread his wings, so ‘Into the Dalek’ feels like the debut proper of our new lead, with the last vestiges of the Matt Smith era discarded.
There’ll be no moping for Matt Smith this week - you’ll be too transfixed by his successor.
This Doctor says of Clara (Jenna Coleman), “She cares so I don’t have to” - but how much of his cold and calculating nature is a front? It seems precious little - disturbingly stoic in the face of death, the Doctor seems genuinely disturbed by his own apathy (“Am I a good man?”) - he doesn’t care and that concerns him.
It’s a similar dynamic to the one Nine shared with Rose - the empathetic companion guiding and, yes, teaching her damaged Doctor - and Capaldi and Coleman share a wonderful rapport, though with the latter reportedly on her way out, it seems - like Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper - we’ll only get to enjoy this particular pairing for a single series.
An example of the Doctor’s newfound callousness is his rejection of Zawe Ashton’s Journey Blue - from the moment our hero saves her from a Dalek fleet, the character has a strong companion vibe. It’s a point that the episode addresses, though the Doctor’s sudden loathing of soldiers seems to have come rather out of the blue - no pun intended.
He’s always despised military tactics and brute force - it’s an inherent part of the character - but given that some of his greatest friends and allies have been soldiers, this sudden prejudice feels odd.
It could be interpreted as a reaction to being confronted with his own potential for rage and violence, but feels more like a slightly clumsy way of foreshadowing tension between the Doctor and Samuel Anderson’s ex-squaddie Danny Pink, since they won’t be engaging in any sort of romantic tussle over Clara.
Anderson makes an assured debut as “lady-killer” Danny and certainly has chemistry with Jenna Coleman, though Coleman’s so fantastic you suspect she’d have chemistry with a brick wall, or indeed a “mountain range”.
The ‘romantic comedy’ portion of ‘Into the Dalek’ is utterly charming - with strong use made of comedic cross-cutting - though with Danny relegated to just two book-end sequences, the character’s introduction does feel a little heavy-handed.
We’re told in quick succession that he’s a teacher and a soldier and sensitive (he sheds a tear!) and interested in Clara - before an anxious Moffat and Ford whip back into outer space for more Daleks and and thrilling sci-fi gubbins.
I look forward to seeing how the character of Danny develops, because we barely get a glimpse of the man this week - though from what we’ve seen, he has definite potential.
One thing Doctor Who fans have seen plenty of is the Daleks - the show is sometimes criticised for an over-reliance on its most famous monsters, but personally I’m happy for Terry Nation’s creations to keep cropping up, so long as there’s an original tale to tell.
'Into the Dalek' succeeds on that front, putting a new twist on an idea half a century old - no mean feat. The theme driving the episode is this - can there ever be such a thing as a good Dalek?
As the Doctor learns to his peril, the answer is no - a Dalek is a weapon, plain and simple. You can’t change its nature, simply which direction it’s aimed in.
To learn that hard truth, the Doctor and Clara are miniaturised and sent into the belly of the beast - a concept that sounds faintly ludicrous on paper and could’ve turned out that way on-screen. See Doctor Who's attempt at a similar concept in 1977's 'The Invisible Enemy' - another Tom Baker tale - for evidence of that.
But in fact, the scenario’s played out with great style and tension, thanks in no small part to some strong visual effects. Though if you examine the whole concept too closely, then ‘Into the Dalek’ does buckle under the pressure of an examining eye…
Consider this - if the Doctor is aware that the damage the Dalek sustained is what’s altered the beast - “morality as malfunction” - then why is he so surprised that repairing that damage restores the creature’s killer instinct?
But forgive ‘Into the Dalek’ its comparatively minor flaws and what you’re left with is a belter of a Doctor Who episode - smart, stirring and visually spectacular.
The Daleks may never change, but both our favourite sci-fi series and its unique lead character seem to be undergoing a transformation and I’m fascinated to see where it leads us. - GW
'The Muppets' review
Jason Segel brings the Muppets back down to earth more than a decade after their last big screen outing in Muppets from Space. Those fearing a crude Apatowian-style makeover with the Forgetting Sarah Marshall star at the helm need not worry - this is an affectionate and poignant revival of Jim Henson’s cloth characters that’ll satisfy fans and win over newcomers.
The story focuses on residents of Smalltown, Gary (played by Segel himself) and his muppet brother Walter, as they set off on a trip to Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Obsessive muppet fans, Gary and Walter gets pangs of nostalgia visiting the old abandoned theatre. When they discover that tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy the property and knock it down to drill for oil, they track down Kermit the Frog in a bid to save the venue.
Having seen the Muppets disband years ago, Kermit and the gang set about reuniting the group. Fozzie Bear is still dispensing bad gags in tribute act the Moopets, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, Animal is in anger management with Jack Black and Miss Piggy is working for Vogue Paris. Launching a telethon to raise $10 million (£6.4 million) to buy the theatre, they refurbish the building (in a rousing montage backed by Starship’s ‘We Built This City’) and recruit Black (against his will, it should be noted!) to host the event.
Toe-tapping musical numbers are interweaved into the story by director James Bobin, whose Flight of the Conchords pal Bret McKenzie penned the two best tracks ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ and ‘Man or Muppet’ - the latter makes good use of Jim Parsons, one of the many stars on cameo duty.
The ‘human’ story is where the film occasionally stumbles. Save for her ‘Party of One’ song, Adams lacks time to shine and is present only to drive a wedge between Gary and Walter. Chris Cooper also struggles to make the most of his one-dimensional villain… even with a rap solo to underline his ruthlessness.
However, playing second fiddle to the puppets hasn’t stopped stars like Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Emily Blunt, Selena Gomez, Sarah Silverman and Mickey Rooney popping up to carry on the muppet tradition of celebs generating laughs at their own expense.
The Muppets is also keenly aware of its lead characters’ prolonged big screen absence, acknowledging it with nudge-wink humour and harnessing the collective nostalgia surrounding them to create a warmth on screen.
Cinema is now in the 3D digital age, with Pixar telling great stories using cutting-edge technology, but there’s still an abundance of old school charm in these beloved puppets. By the time the film moves into its uplifting finale, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. - GW
Royal Blood album review: ‘The antithesis to their lazy comparisons’
When Royal Blood perform their album’s opening track 'Out Of The Black' live, the results are pretty remarkable. Ben Thatcher and Mike Kerr prematurely shudder the song to a stop, stoically staring down the crowd. The two (and only) members of the band then persist in transforming the confused cheers into visceral hunger, without uttering a word. Satisfied with the volume of the cries from their disciples, the spiralling outro roars to a close and suddenly the authority with which Kerr shrieks the lyrics: “Don’t breathe when I talk ‘cause you haven’t been spoken to” makes perfect sense.
Quite rightly, Royal Blood have argued the futility of recording something if it can’t be reproduced live - something of an ambitious feat for an act statistically half the size of your average rock band. But head count aside, behind the barrage of pure, raw noise, something far more intelligent is at work.
Kerr and Thatcher are relentless carpenters of every one of their songs, wringing anything that could be considered as ‘excess’ dry from their debut record and hacking off any temptation of indulgence. The perfect symmetry of 'Blood Hands' is a prime example; Kerr tiptoeing his vocal range as Thatcher toys with percussion duties, considered but never shy.
It makes Royal Blood’s debut album an unapologetic assault, tearing down the lazy comparisons they’ve been lumbered with. Jack White famously scolded the Black Keys for ‘ripping off’ his sound, but with their arsenal of a bass guitar, drums and that voice, Royal Blood do less of the ripping and more reinventing of the blues-rock pairings they’ve haphazardly been filed next to.
'Ten Tonne Skeleton'is a plea to failed love, appealing: “Let’s burn the past, forget the truth/I’m still more than him, I’m still loving you,” while 'Better Strangers' owes its title to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Elsewhere 'Blood Hands' shifts from a creeping Biblical-style fable to a clattering construction of riffs and distorted vocals before innocently journeying back.
Mike and Ben are first and foremost a live band. The pure scale of hype that surround them and the packed out tents they brought to most major festivals before they had an album to their name vindicates that. Royal Blood is a game changer, and the same tired chorus of voices pontificating about the demise of guitar music can prepare to start mithering about something else: a new wave of bands intent on replicating this fierce twosome. - GW
Ariana Grande My Everything album review: ‘Her voice shines supreme’
"I’m a very flexible person - but if I feel like you want me to compromise my views or myself as an artist, you can go f**k yourself," Ariana Grande said in a recent interview when questioned about the criticism of her new-found sexier image. It’s a feisty answer from the usually PG-13 starlet who, just under a year ago, took the pop world by surprise with her debut album Yours Truly. Not many Nickelodeon sidekicks go on to outshine their leading co-star, but Grande’s uncanny vocal likeness to Mariah Carey, along with riding a revival of early ’90s R&B, allowed her to cross over to the Hot 100 remarkably smoothly.
Eager to keep the spotlight burning bright, My Everything comes along a mere 11 months later. On first listen, it comes across as a hodge podge collection of electronic club numbers, slinky R&B and impressive co-writes; fundamentally Top 40 radio condensed into a 12-track collection for iTunes. Of course, this is no bad thing. Ariana’s flexibility comes with the intention of becoming the world’s next big popstar, and as lead single 'Problem' proved with its strutting brass and hair-flipping hooks, she has all the potential to reach that goal.
However, with repeated listens, My Everything's mixed bag proves that whatever the genre, Ariana's voice shines supreme. 'Break Free's pulsing beats and zippy synths are big enough to reach nightclubs on the fringes of the galaxy, while its more restrained sibling 'One Last Time' has speckles of electronica to save it from falling into dwindling balladry. Elsewhere, Ariana’s slick R&B roots are represented on Big Sean hook-up 'Best Mistake' and Cashmere Cat collaboration 'Be My Baby'. Both carry over nicely from Yours Truly, elevating Grande’s wispy ad-libs over light hip-hop taps and potentially winding up an elusive chanteuse in the process.
As for a rousing mid-tempo number? That’s covered with 'Why Try', co-written by Ryan Tedder, no less. “We’ve been loving like angels, we’ve been loving like devils,” Grande admits on the middle eight, before launching into the kind of euphoric, cliff-top belting chorus we’ve come to expect from the OneRepublic frontman. There’s a real sense that Ariana has filled the album with chart-bound hits, managing to avoid slipping into generic pop territory. She even successfully drags The Weeknd out of his Pitchfork mixtape mindset to sound like an upbeat popstar over subtle grooves and disco claps on captivating serenade 'Love Me Harder'.
Rebuking an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with a guy is a refreshing approach to the classic heartbreak anthem. Sampling Diana Ross’s ‘I’m Coming Out’, 'Break Your Heart Right Back' is a clicking hip-hop number that hears featured rapper Childish Gambino fearlessly tackle a subject his genre has issues with (“Yes I’m a G to the A and they ask why?”). Furthermore, Ariana graduates from the school of tween star on 'Hands On Me'; its mix of oriental riffs and hip-shaking beats reminiscent of the steamy pop that helped Britney Spears do the same back in 2001. They both make up for piano-led dud 'Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart' (penned by Harry Styles) and saccharine title track 'My Everything'.
Overall, though, Ariana Grande has delivered a solid transition record with My Everything, proving that her honeyed vocals can handle more than the light R&B rhythms of her debut. As for her no compromise mantra? There are too many big-name songwriters here to believe that she exercised complete creative control, but it takes considerable talent to front the right balance of playful pop, heartfelt sentiments and sexy sassiness with ease. Believe the title - this is Ariana’s everything, and she’s taking it right to the top. - GW
Maroon 5 ‘Maps’ single review: ‘They’ve lost a part of themselves’
"I like to think we had it all/ We drew a map to a better place," Adam Levine contemplates on Maroon 5’s latest single ‘Maps’. While there’s no doubt he’s referring to a tumultuous relationship - as is usually the case when it comes to Maroon 5 - it’s hard not to apply the sentiment to the band’s stratospheric rise. It’s been over a decade since they first dented the chart with their Police-esque funky riffs, but recent years have seen them make the leap into mainstream pop territory.
Levine and band member James Valentine are very much still at the centre of the songwriting process, but recent sessions have seen them buddying up to Max Martin, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder et al. And do you know what? To a certain extent, it works. ‘Maps’ has an infectious refrain that’s darn hard to budge from your brain, and its formulaic middle eight is a classic clap-along build-up before a dynamite finale.
Problem is, while there are still faint essences of Maroon 5 at its core, any hint of risk-taking has been sacrificed for guaranteed success. They may have navigated themselves up the chart once again, but they’ve lost a little part of themselves in the process. - GW
Doctor Who series 8: Peter Capaldi’s debut in ‘Deep Breath’ reviewed
Post-regeneration episodes are a tricky business. Some have been spectacular, others abysmal, and Steven Moffat is the first writer on Doctor Who to ever pen two, if you omit 2005’s ‘Rose’ from the rundown.
Four years ago, Moffat’s first Doctor - Matt Smith - was an unknown quantity, and while his second - Peter Capaldi - is a more established face, this new take on our Time Lord is if anything more mysterious.
By the end of ‘The Christmas Invasion’ or ‘The Eleventh Hour’, you absolutely adored and trusted the new Doctor. By the end of ‘Deep Breath’, you’re still not certain who Capaldi’s Doctor really is or how you feel about him - it’s unsettling, yes, but I suspect entirely intentional on Moffat’s part.
So what do we know? Like Smith before him, Capaldi is a striking screen presence - though his stark, scarecrow silhouette couldn’t be further removed from his forerunner’s endearingly awkward gait.
But while he’s sufficiently different from his immediate predecessor, Capaldi’s performance does repeatedly recall other Doctors of old. Perhaps it’s the subconscious effect of being a Doctor Who super-fan, but there are echoes of Troughton, Tennant, McGann and both Bakers in his inflections and gestures.
Ambiguous then, with flecks of nostalgia, but we’ve heard much talk of how this Doctor is “darker”, and while Moffat’s script does allow the character a few juvenile moments, the climax of ‘Deep Breath’ indeed delivers a deliciously dark twist, with the viewer left uncertain as to whether a Doctor who has given up on salvation might push a man to his death.
It’s certainly a canny move to have a bewildered Clara (Jenna Coleman) surrounded by familiar faces - the returning Paternoster Gang - because there’s little else that’s reassuring about ‘Deep Breath’, which sees Capaldi’s unhinged hero investigate a string of gruesome murders, descending deep into director Ben Wheatley’s cold, stark Victorian London.
In such grim circumstances, it is not just the Doctor who is changed, but Clara too. I’m a big fan of Jenna Coleman, but too often her character’s been written as a bland ‘Companion 101’ - asking heaps of questions, so the Doctor can explain the plot.
It seems Moffat’s recognised the problem and is making a concerted effort to fix it - introducing a family for Clara at Christmas and, later this series, a love interest in the form of Samuel Anderson’s Danny Pink.
Already though, ‘Deep Breath’ presents us with a Clara much improved - the Doctor’s regeneration affords her the chance to be a little bit more conflicted, a little spikier than we’ve seen previously, particularly in her early heated exchange with Vastra (Neve McIntosh).
Coleman’s also spectacular in a sequence which sees Clara abandoned and forced to fend for herself. The show still needs to pin down exactly who Clara is (a girl with “muscular young men in her subconscious” or someone who has “never had the slightest interest in pretty young men”?) but at least she’s no longer just a chirpy, picture-perfect mouthpiece for Moffat’s one-liners.
Deftly reinventing both the Doctor and, to a lesser extent, his companion, where ‘Deep Breath’ falls down is in its pacing and structure - across its 80 minutes, some themes and notions are allocated more screen-time than feels necessary, while others don’t get nearly enough.
Sometimes, Moffat gets it right. Positively sedate by Doctor Who standards, the extended episode’s thoughtful first act explores issues and questions surrounding identity and regeneration that the show’s never before tackled - “Who frowned me this face?”
But other times, a point becomes laboured - in case you missed the fact in countless interviews, it’s stated repeatedly in ‘Deep Breath’ that this Doctor doesn’t flirt or share any sort of romantic connection with Clara.
It feels odd for it to be addressed so much, on and off screen, given that flirting and snogging was more the purview of David Tennant’s Doctor. Bar the odd misjudged line about tight skirts, Matt Smith’s incarnation shared little sexual tension with Clara, at least compared to 11 and Amy, or 10 and practically anyone bar Donna.
Other elements in ‘Deep Breath’ feel neglected by comparison. The Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando) and his hordes are certainly a memorable threat, with their creepy imitations of human behaviour powered by whirring cogs. But the ‘hold your breath’ gimmick - Moffat’s attempt to do another ‘don’t blink’ - is wasted, swamped by other moments and ideas.
The relationship between the new Doctor and Clara is the one constant, and it’s the rapport between Capaldi and Coleman that carries ‘Deep Breath’ during its missteps. There may be - ICYMI - no flirting, but there’s still something desperately romantic about that penultimate scene.
It’s a beautiful moment when Matt Smith’s emotional sucker-punch of a cameo allows Clara to finally see her Doctor in the strange, older man who now stands before her - the highlight of the episode, in fact.
So while ‘Deep Breath’ is not perfect, I’m still more than willing to follow the Doctor and Clara on new adventures in time and space - the potential’s there for the Capaldi era to be terrific, even if this first adventure doesn’t quite hit all the marks. - GW
'New Year's Eve' review
There’ll be a lot of sore celebrity heads after this New Year’s Eve party sees the light of day. Michelle Pfeiffer is the only star who properly shines in this follow-up to Valentine’s Day from director Garry Marshall.
The rest, including Jessica Biel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher and Halle Berry merely go through the motions while Robert De Niro literally drags himself into 2012 with his last dying breath. That’s not giving anything away in a multi-strand plot that clearly signposts every twist and turn in the first ten minutes. And from there, it’s a long countdown to the end…
Pfeiffer plays against type as a bitter hag who has watched her life go by from behind a desk and finally resolves to make her dreams come true - all before midnight. She’s aided in the quest by High School Musical's Zac Efron, who is so resolutely upbeat you fear he might burst into song at any moment.
This leads into a series of sketches, the funniest of which sees Pfeiffer swinging like a sack of dirty laundry from the rafters of a Broadway theatre. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel is vaguely amusing as a pregnant woman determined that her child be the first born of 2012. It becomes a frenzied contest with another couple, but the gags quickly run dry.
The director of Pretty Woman also makes time for romance, but whereas that film made you believe in fairytales, this one gets lost in the clouds. Katherine Heigl and Jon Bon Jovi (unconvincing, even as a version of himself) are ill-matched in a story that seems to suggest happiness is giving up on your dreams.
On the other side of town, a moody Ashton Kutcher is trapped in a lift (not to mention an old cliché) with one of JBJ’s backing singers. Sarah Jessica Parker is forced to relive scenes from I Don’t Know How She Does It as fussy mum to Abigail Breslin, and Hilary Swank gets in a flap as the events organiser trying to ensure the ball drops in Times Square come midnight.
As a hospital patient, Robert De Niro plays the only character grappling with a life or death situation except that with all the emphasis he puts on seeing that ball drop ‘one last time’, it’s really a forgone conclusion. His rattling moans also dampen the party atmosphere that Marshall is working so hard to build up and Halle Berry adds a heavy dose of saccharine sentiment as the nurse at his bedside.
Laughter is, of course, the best medicine, but there isn’t nearly enough of that. Observational humour is ditched in favour of predictable set-ups and comedy accents (i.e. an Indian chef and Sofia Vergara as a mucho loud-mouthed Latina). Blink and you might miss a star cameo, but even so, there’s no sparkle to the film. It’s tacky like week-old tinsel.
In Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s down-and-out writer Eddie Morra stumbles across a drug that unlocks 100% of his brain capacity. Yes, really. Within weeks he’s gone from hobo to high-flier; finishing his book, making millions on the stock market, seducing women with ease and getting back with his ex-girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish). To use a Sheenism, he is #winning. It doesn’t take long for shady figures to emerge hunting down the drug - a clear pill dubbed NZT - and Eddie to team up with Robert De Niro’s hilariously monikered mogul Carl Van Loon to supervise a multi-billion dollar corporate merger.
There are side-effects to NZT, though. As Eddie separates from his stash he’s struck by crippling headaches, vomiting and prolonged blackouts. Taking the drug becomes essential, without it Eddie is unable to continue his #totalbitchinrockstarfrommars lifestyle. He also sees his intelligence regress to that of a mere mortal. It’s a story that dances close to the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s, yet one that’s thankfully well aware of just how ludicrous it is. Take it too seriously and the whole enterprise would crumble, however director Neil Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon unfurl the action at a brisk pace with one eye looking to mine the situations for humour. “Don’t wear black, this isn’t The Matrix,” Eddie tells two brutish bodyguards he’s about to hire for protection.
Director Burger finds visually inventive ways to illustrate the moments when Eddie’s synapses are firing. Ceiling tiles flip to show letters and numbers as he trades the stock market, imagined duplicates allow him to expertly multitask and letters fall from above as he hammers out his book manuscript. Cooper has the kind of inherent smugness necessary to make this role work. He’s the smartest wise-cracker in the room, making you want to both be him and throttle him. Call it #AdonisDNAenvy. His co-stars Cornish and Anna Friel (as Eddie’s NZT-addicted ex-wife Melissa) only register nominally in the token girl roles, while De Niro brings the required gravitas to his small but important part.
Limitless is a deliriously loopy thrill-ride but all the better for it. The cast and filmmakers happily embrace the silliness, particularly in the final third when Eddie seemingly drinks #tigerblood (you’ll understand when you see it) to get himself back up and running. Burger skirts around more serious issues such as the price of addiction and the effect it has on loved ones. This never quite gels with the more preposterous plot points (of which there are many!), yet events are hardly dull as the movie presents a gleefully deranged take on living the American Dream. This is about as daft as popcorn entertainment gets… just make sure you don’t neck a clear pill before going in otherwise it’ll all be for nothing. - GW
Union J ‘Tonight (We Live Forever)’ single review: ‘Playing it safe’
Union J have gushed that the first cut from their forthcoming second album is about ‘a group of friends having the time of their lives’. They’re not the first ones to champion that philosophy. Drake’s ‘YOLO’ mantra is now in the online Oxford dictionary, and Sia has established that most radio hits work from the ‘party-time’ premise to “live like tomorrow doesn’t exist”. But are Union J the life and soul of the party, or just the latest to ride on the ‘YOLO’ wave?
'Tonight (We Live Forever)' veers away from the well-trodden path of shot-downing and clubbing to the equally exhausted vein of love. “I have the best time every time you're by my side/ 'Cause we're living for tonight,” they sing with just the right amount of “woahs” and an uplifting “It's all good” refrain. Union J may be upping their game by taking on songwriting duties for their new album, but their decision to play it safe ultimately stops their lead track from progressing little beyond the realm of 'party time' throwaway. - GW
'This Means War' review
This Means War boldly goes all the way in the romantic action comedy stakes. It is big, dumb and very, very daft. Still, that shouldn’t ruin the enjoyment for dating couples who aren’t looking for anything serious. At least two corners of the featured love triangle - that’s Reese Witherspoon and home-grown talent Tom Hardy - ensure a decent bit of fun and mischief.
Chris Pine, who starred in the 2009 Star Trek redo, brings that macho Kirk quality to the part of FDR, a CIA operative and a rival for the affections of dithering singleton Lauren (Witherspoon). He’s hardly a hero, though, sneakily using surveillance technology to derail a promising internet romance between Lauren and his brother-in-arms Tuck (Hardy).
In contrast to his usually violent roles (Bronson, Warrior), Hardy plays the softer-hearted of the two agents and Pine’s cockiness means that, early on, FDR comes across as the villain of the piece. Soon enough, though, both men are crossing the line with nary a care; invading Lauren’s privacy with hidden cameras, wiretapping and general stalker-like behaviour to try to steal her heart.
Honestly, no right-minded woman would want to date either of these sociopaths, but Lauren hardly fits that description. On the one hand she’s a bit thick, failing to suss out what’s going on behind her back (literally, both men darting like ninjas in and out of her kitchen) and on the other, she seems flaky and a bit cruel by leading both of them on (unaware that they know each other).
Fortunately, all of this suspect behaviour is played with an impish glint in the eye, not least by director McG whose credits include such glossy, processed cheese as Terminator Salvation and the Charlie’s Angels films. The fact that it’s so outrageous is part of the appeal, making you laugh in sheer disbelief at the lengths these guys will go to.
If you can get over the gross infringement of civil liberties (and even in this day and age, it is utterly implausible), the war waged by Tuck and FDR cleverly works like a magnifying glass on the neuroses often experienced by newly dating couples. McG can’t sustain that ingenuity all the way through, though, and the gags are similarly hit-and-miss.
He often defers to comedienne Chelsea Handler (move over Joan Rivers) who is good for cheap and easy laughs, playing Lauren’s equally cheap and easy friend. She spouts one-liners like Tom Hardy delivers poisoned darts - designed to make your eyes roll and your jaw drop. But going into the final stretch, the action amps up and the laugh count goes down.
The charisma of the actors just about carries it through. It’s especially good to see Hardy tapping into his cheekier side and even Pine begins to seem charming after dropping his defences. As a reward, they all get a happy ending, but after so much deception, this hardly leaves a warm glow. Such a twisted romance might have made a bigger impact if McG was willing to go darker. - GW
Ariana Grande ft. Zedd: ‘Break Free’ review - Too catchy to be generic
"I fought Max Martin on it the whole time," Ariana Grande recently told Time magazine about the recording session for her new single ‘Break Free’. “I am not going to sing a grammatically incorrect lyric, help me God!” Pop is usually sneered at for its light lyrics and throwaway sentiments, so it’s refreshing to hear a blossoming diva stand up for grammar’s sake. Okay, Ariana ultimately lost this particular studio battle, but she made sure she channelled that headstrong attitude into the remainder of the anthem.
Its pumping beats and stellar synths - courtesy of Zedd - successfully divert attention from its lyrical shortcomings, but that’s not to say Ariana’s heavenly tone and intergalactic range don’t stand tall in their own right. “I only wanna die alive/ Never by the hands of a broken heart,” she declares on one of the offending lines, before the pounding chorus proves itself too catchy to be generic. I’m firmly with Ariana when it comes to grammatically correct pop, but when you’re handed an electro banger this infectious, words are bound to fail you in more ways than one. - GW