Doctor Who 5.10 – Vincent and the Doctor

If somebody asked me to make a short list of my favorite writers and/or directors working today, Richard Curtis isn’t the first person who’d leap to mind. He might not even be the fifth. Despite that, I count myself as a big, big fan of his stuff, going all the way back to “Blackadder,” and right up to his most recent work, “Pirate Radio,” a movie which didn’t do well at the box office and got some fairly tepid reviews upon release. Like Curtis’s “Love Actually” before it, I suspect “Pirate Radio” (or “The Boat That Rocked,” for those of you in the U.K.) will go on to become a favorite of many, many people, because it’s an utterly charming, daffy piece of cinema that doesn’t want to do much more than entertain the hell out of you for a couple hours. And that it does. When it was announced that Curtis would be writing an episode for this season of “Doctor Who,” naturally I was interested in the prospect, but if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t expect all that much from it, and even less so once it came out that it would be about Vincent van Gogh.

For starters, Curtis has no track record writing science-fiction or fantasy (at least not the type one thinks of when bandying about such terms), and while it seemed gratifying to have such a high profile writer onboard, nothing in his works indicated that, with only 45 minutes to play, he’d likely create anything more than an amusing romp. Perhaps it was less Curtis himself, and more the new series having a pretty bad track record when it comes to tackling historical figures, regardless of who’s writing them. In fact, they typically seem to end up…amusing romps. Probably the best was the first one, “The Unquiet Dead,” which featured Charles Dickens, and from there they’ve kind of incrementally gone downhill. I didn’t think the formula could get much worse than “The Unicorn and the Wasp” with Agatha Christie, but along came “Victory of the Daleks” with Winston Churchill to prove me wrong. So imagine my surprise upon discovering that Curtis trashed my expectations by creating a deep, lovely, tortured thing of beauty that reduced me to tears. I have really got to start trusting this guy. His name is a stamp of quality no matter what “they” say.

(Editor’s note: I’ll second that, having interviewed Mr. Curtis in connection with the release of “Pirate Radio.” You can check out the conversation by clicking here.)

“Vincent and the Doctor” is the new standard by which these types of stories will, or at least should be measured. I have never quite understood the point of the Doctor meeting up with famous figures from the past only so that we can laugh at them and their quaint, backwards ways, all while cramming in little in-jokes that play off of what we know about these people from today’s perspective. Curtis presents us with a fictitious riff on van Gogh that lays waste to the previous approach. His story demands that we feel for van Gogh and his problems, which in turn gives the episode a gravitas that’s lacking in stuff like “The Shakespeare Code,” in which young Will was little more than a smarmy Casanova. Curtis comes from a place that has a huge amount of respect for this artist, as well as understanding that van Gogh’s troubled history was a big part of what made him the artist he was. Curtis also wisely avoids tackling the infamous ear-cutting incident, which is something a lesser writer would’ve worked into the story by having the alien lob it off or some such nonsense.

From the very first sequence, the reality of van Gogh (Tony Curran) painting “Wheatfield with Crows” is mixed with the fantastical element of the unknown in the field, disturbing the birds, and thus giving a reason for the crows in the painting in the first place. Quickly the action moves to the present at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and before you can say Bill Nighy, there he is, as Dr. Black. At first it seems a somewhat wasted cameo, but lucky for us Nighy returns before the episode is over. The Doctor has taken Amy to see the van Gogh exhibit at the museum. It seems he’s taken her numerous places since their last adventure, and he’s got a guilty conscience about the loss of Rory, who of course Amy no longer even remembers. The painting “The Church at Auvers” catches the Doctor’s eye, as there’s something in one of the church windows that he recognizes as “evil.” And so it’s off to 1890 to get to the bottom of it all.

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Hollywood (and the rest of California) destroyed! Millions to be made!

John Cusack in

Yes, with just one really big new release this week, it’s looking like Sony and Roland Emmerich’s eschatological extravaganza, “2012,” will most definitely take the box office crown this weekend. Prognosticators are, however, offering a pretty broad range of possible results. Pamela McClintock of Variety says that “observers” are guessing the mega-disaster tale will make “north” of $40 million “or even substantially more” on its opening. The ever jolly Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter gets more specific on the “substantially more” and suggests that those mysterious tracking surveys mean that $55-65 million is “doable” for the first would-be blockbuster I’ve ever heard of to be based on the Mayan calendar. Some of this speculation, of course, is based on the large success ($186.7 million domestically) of Emmerich’s other mass destruction based sci-fi flick from 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Still, there are some issues, including an outsize running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, forty minutes longer than “Day.” Predictably, most critics are making fun of the film. Let’s face it, Emmerich isn’t exactly known for thoughtful cinema. Still, while the film only scores a meager 32% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, it does seem to generate a certain number of backhanded compliments from those who think it edges into guilty pleasure territory, including from our own David Medsker and a darn funny, three-star review by the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. In any event, that running time could be an issue in terms of number of shows per day and also simply by annoying impatient filmgoers. However, the teen boys who go to this stuff never seem to mind a long running time if they get their share of thud and blunder and, by all accounts, “2012” provides oodles of some of the best wanton destruction in some time.

Bill Nighy in Being released in some 882 theaters, as compared to 3,404 for “2012,” is Focus Features’ “Pirate Radio.” It’s a shortened version of a fact-inspired comedy that was called “The Boat That Rocked” in the UK. Writer-director Richard Curtis of “Love, Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and cult TV favorite “Blackadder,” is once again splitting critics with this ode to the glory days of sixties pop. However, a running theme in the reviews appears to be that, for a comedy about a bunch of radio rebels forcing their way illegally onto English airwaves during the heyday of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it’s a bit polite. And so, the RT rating is a mehish 56% as of this writing.

I should add, though, that there’s something about Richard Curtis — I’d guess it’s gratuitous niceness — that tends to make some critics underrate his films. “Love, Actually” was a terrific piece of work in my own opinion, but it only earned an RT rating of 63%, though it also earned roughly a million bucks for each percentage point. Will Harris, who got to travel to our nation’s mother country to participate in the press junket for “Pirate Radio” is of a like mind, but feels this effort is worthy but a bit less wonderful its predecessor. (Will’s interviews from his trip are highly recommended. I suggest you start with Richard Curtis.)

And that’s it for the major/semi-major releases, but there’s some very interesting action amongst the limited flicks. First, as per Box Office Mojo, the critically lauded, sure-to-be Oscar nominated “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” which did amazing limited release business last weekend for Lions Gate with a per-screen average of $100,000 in 18 theaters, is expanding to 174 screens this weekend. Apparition/Sony’s critically derided and sure to be utterly un-awarded “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” is bumping up to 244 screens after showing some cult strength.

Finally, in an interesting strategy for a fairly high profile animated family film with an all-star voice cast, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — from Fox, naturally — is opening in four theaters this weekend. The thinking here is, I’m guessing, that this isn’t just any animated family film based on a popular children’s book by Roald Dahl, but one directed by arthouse fave Wes Anderson. Though there may, or may not, have been significant issues during its making, it wound up with great reviews. In fact, the painstakingly non-CGI puppet animation is collecting the most consistently good notices of Anderson’s entire remarkable career, as reckoned by Rotten Tomatoes, beating even his instant classic “Rushmore” by four points. So, giving “Mr. Fox” a little time to percolate and spread some good word of mouth by opening it more slowly makes a lot of sense. It’s a strategy that should be used a lot more often, with good movies that is.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  

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