Documentary Movie Review: Yellowstone (2009) #AtoZChallenge

This is my entry for “Y” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Y” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park and You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

Title: Yellowstone
Release Date: March 2009
Director: [none listed]
Production Company: BBC Natural History Unit | Animal Planet

Yellowstone is a three-part nature documentary series filmed in Yellowstone National Park.  The episodes each focus on a season: winter, summer, and autumn (spring gets short shrift but since the snows don’t melt until June, maybe there is no spring).  I think if you drop some decent cinematographers with quality cameras into Yellowstone you’re guaranteed to get a gorgeous film, but nevertheless the visuals in this documentary are absolutely spectacular.  The theme of the series is “The Battle for Life” so it does veer toward overly dramatic narration.

Winter – Yellowstone’s geothermal features and landscape contribute to long, severe winters with heavy snowfall.  Wolves thrive in the winter as they are able to hunt weakened herds of elk. Bison use their heavy heads like a snowplow to search for edible grasses.  A red fox dives through the snow to capture mice.  And in my absolute favorite part, otters practically swim through the snow and use an opening in the ice created by geysers as a place to fish.

Summer – The season sees the emergence of a bear and her cubs. Other animals including pronghorn, bison, and wolves are also birthing young and keeping them alive in dangerous conditions. Cuthroat trout swim upstream to spawn and are hunted by otters and osprey.  Toward the end of the season, bear climb high in the mountains where they feed on army cutworm moths (like blue whales living on krill!).

Autumn – Trees devour their chlorophyll and erupt in gorgeous colors. Whitebark pine cones are spread with the help of squirrels, bears, and Clark’s nutcrackers.  Beavers repair their dams and stock up food for the winter.  Male elk and bighorn sheep fight among themselves for the right to mate with their respective females.  For the first time in the series, we also see humans as the elk and pronghorn migrate to lower ground outside of the park, with the wolves hot on their heels.  The wild animals have to face the dangers of hunters, motor vehicles, industry, and residential development, while ranchers are uneasy about wolves attacking their herds.

Rating: ****

TV Review: Fleabag (2019)

Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6

The second season of Fleabag is even better than the first. These tightly scripted and plotted episodes tell a story of human fraility and resilience that is full of laughs and heartbreaks.  The series begins a year after the first series and Fleabag has been ostracized by her family in the interim due to her actions in the first series.  But the show begins with the family reunited for Dad and Godmother’s engagement dinner. Claire is still with Martin, but commuting regularly to Finland for her new job there.  A sixth guest at the table is the priest who will preside over the wedding.  Christened on social media as “Hot Priest” and portrayd by the excellent Andrew Scott, he has a lot of similarity to Fleabag, including the tendency to say inappropriate things out loud and drinking too much, but the good qualities as well.  The main focus of the series is the friendship and the illicit romance between that grows between Flebag and Hot Priest.  But the show also delves further into Fleabag’s trauma over the deaths of her mother and her best friend, Boo, as well as her efforts to repair the relationship with her surviving family.  It’s an excellent, bawdy comedy that somehow also delves right into the heart of humanity and relationships.

TV Review: Fleabag (2016)

Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6

Fleabag is a British comedy series created and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  In the show, Waller-Bridge portrays a 30-year-old woman in London who is sarcastic, has several strained relationships, and engages in lots of recreational sex. At first I thought this was going to be one of those “a person in their 20s sleeping around and having a wacky life, isn’t it so relatable” types of shows that I never find relatable.  Thankfully, it is not like that at all.

Waller-Bridge’s character has sexual relationships with three different men over the course of the series, but they are negligible compared with her relationships with her family and friends which are the focus of the show.  Her mother died three years earlier and her father (Bill Paterson) has been distant ever since, but does things like send her and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) to feminist lectures and silent retreats.  Things with her older sister are also not so good as Claire is much more serious and is married to her absolutely awful husband Martin (Brett Gelman).  Her father is also romantically involved with their Godmother (Olivia Colman), far too soon after their mother’s death.  Colman is an actor I always enjoy, but her portrayal of the absolute worst kind of pretentious, manipulative, and passive aggressive person is so good that I want to hate her.  Finally, Waller-Bridge’s character feels grief and guilt over the recent death of her best friend and business partner Boo (Jenny Rainsford, who appears in flashbacks) who was hit by a car.

All the actors in this show are absolutely spectacular. Over the course of the series, their stories are woven into wacky adventures, and somewhere along the way, we the audience find ourselves caring deeply for these people even if they can be kind of awful.  One of the features of the show is Phoebe Waller-Bridge frequently breaking the fourth wall to bring us into the situation with a wisecrack or look.  This mannerism could be irritating in other hands but Waller-Bridge never fails to be funny, and she has the most expressive face.  And after all the laughter, don’t be surprised if you find yourself crying at the end of the series because it’ll hit you in the feels.

By the way, it wasn’t until after I watched the entire series that I discovered that “Fleabag” is the name given to the main character!  She’s never referred that way on screen, perhaps its meant to represent the way she thinks of herself at her most self-loathing.


TV Review: Doctor Who (2018)

TitleDoctor Who
Release Dates: 2018
Series: 11
Number of Episodes: 10

This is going to be tough because I love this show so much, yet I’m going to have to state some unpleasant truths.  This was not a very good series of Doctor Who. The baseline of competency was met again and again, and no episode was truly awful, but this series never seemed to aspire to anything beyond sheer competency.  There are a lot of people involved in creating a television series, but I believe that a lot of the blame for the failures of Series 11 can go to the showrunner Chris Chibnall, who scripted 5 of the 10 episodes, and co-wrote another.  I had concerns about Chibnall going into the series based on his previous work for Doctor Who and Torchwood, but had also admired his work on Broadchurch, at least the first season.

Compared with the previous showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who each contributed numerous innovations to Doctor Who storytelling, Chibnall did not seem interested in taking many risks in that area.  I should note though, that there was some risk-taking in this series.  For one, this is the first time a woman – Jodie Whittaker – was cast in the role of the Doctor, and while that shouldn’t be risky in 2018, it was nevertheless, controversial.  The consequence though is that Chibnall and company appeared not to want to make any further waves and wrote the Doctor as a very passive character, to the point of criminal indifference, which is not something you want to see paired with your female representation.  The optimist in me thinks that now that the writers have seen how Whittaker performs the Doctor, and with one season under their belt, that they will be willing to take more risks with her character next series.  At the very least I hope they cease writing dialogue where Whittaker is forced to just describe what is in front of her much of the time.  These writers need to heed the advice to show not tell.

Another big risk is that Chibnall chose to cast three different companions, creating the largest Tardis Team since the Fifth Doctor also traveled with three companions in the 1980s.  It was also the first time that 4 major characters were introduced in the same episode since the premiere of the series in 1963.  The consequence of this risk is that there was very little time to develop four new characters and tell new stories at the same time.  Yaz was particularly effected by the crowded Tardis in that the audience never seemed to learn much about her despite her having the potential to be the most interesting character as a foil to the Doctor.  She’s also the most competent character, so her quietly getting things done didn’t leave much time for interesting character beats.  Ryan and Grahams were served better as they had the theme of there growing familial relationship as they mourn Grace to carry them through the series.

Chibnall took risks in how the series is presented.  Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, a series has had 12-to-13 episodes, 45 minutes in length, plus a Christmas Special.  Chibnall cut the total number of episodes to 10, but extended the length of individual episodes to 50 minutes.  The problems of character development may have been better addressed with 2 or 3 more stories.  While previous series usually had some two-part episodes, and at least a semi-serialized nature where the series built on a story arc or theme, Chibnall chose to have all the episodes of series 11 be stand-alone stories, with the exception of an episode 1 villain ineffectively returning in episode 10.  The structure of a Doctor Who episode was modeled on the procedural drama genre of television for the first time.  I can’t criticize that choice because Doctor Who should be able to function in any genre, even if it didn’t work for other reasons.

The series was a commercial success with better ratings than Doctor Who has had in some time.  The argument can be made that more straightforward, stand alone episodes attract a larger number of viewers who can pop in to watch an episode without having to know a lot of the details behind the story.  I’m pleased that Doctor Who is succeeding, even if it’s not the type of Doctor Who I enjoy.  But I would also contend that television viewers – including children – are more sophisticated viewers than they were a generation or two ago and can handle more complex stories and serialization.  Not the least because a large percentage of people who end up viewing this show will do so by bingewatching on streaming services rather than watching each episode as it airs.

Despite my heavy criticism of the show, there was a lot I enjoyed about it.  Whittaker was excellent in portraying the Doctor as funny, compassionate, and a strong leader.  She deserves better material to work with.  I also love all the new companions, they are great characters and each bring something to the team. The production values were excellent for the most part including cinematograpy, sets, costuming, and music.  It was a pleasurable program to look at the vast majority of the time.  While the politics of the show seem to be moving rightward overall, it’s also important to recognize the representation in this series.  Women and people of color are appearing in the show, as well as writing and directing, more than ever before, and telling stories previously ignored in the previous 36 seasons.

Here are my thoughts on an episode by episode basis with links to full reviews.  The number in parentheses is a rating on a scale of 10.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7) – A good introduction, that swiftly brings together our new Tardis Team with good character beats for each, and keeping Jodie Whittaker on her toes as she resolves both the problem and her new identity.  Sure, the villain is rubbish, but monsters are only secondary to this story and we’re never going to see Tim Shaw again, right?  The biggest downer is that Grace, one of the most compelling characters and a natural for the companion role, dies just as we’re getting to know her.
  2. The Ghost Monument (5) – The first episode introduced all of our new characters, while the purpose of this episode is to reunite the Doctor with her Tardis.  Along the way, the new companions get their “wow, we’re on another planet” moments.  The plot seems only incidental and is discarded once the Tardis is found, setting a pattern of Chibnall-authored stories that are unresolved.
  3. Rosa (7) – The first historical of Series 11 is set in 1950s Alabama and does a great job of capturing the period and the pervasive nature of Jim Crow racism.  The message of the show, that social change occurs only when great individuals like Rosa Parks take small actions (and that they will suffer to achieve incremental changes) seems out of touch with what audiences need from Doctor Who in 2018, though.
  4. Arachnids in the UK  (6) -The return to Sheffield episode does a good job of introducing us to Yaz’s family and setting up an adventure involving giant spiders, and even make us sympathetic to the monsters.  The story once again ends with a feeling of loose ends untied.  And while Doctor Who certainly can’t depict the overthrow of Donald Trump, they could at least offer consequences to a Trump surrogate.
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum (7) – I seem to be alone in liking this space adventure, and certainly think it’s the best Chibnall-authored script of the season.  For one, it actually tells a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  And the other, all the characters – regular and guest – play a part in the story and have significant character moments.  It’s also funny.  I guess people just don’t like cute monsters.
  6. Demons of the Punjab (8) – This Yaz-centered story travels back in time to visit her grandmother in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.  The personal story of one family set against tragic historical events is definitely the best story of the season.
  7. Kerblam! (5) – Honestly, this story is not as bad as it’s rating.  It’s well constructed and entertaining, and I suppose a good example of Right Wing Science Fiction.  But it loses points because the Doctor being not only indifferent to, but tacitly supporting, the suffering and exploitation of labor is counter to everything I know about the Doctor.
  8. The Witchfinders (8) – Another entertaining historical with Alan Cumming guest starring in a wonderfully hammy performance as King James I.  The Tardis Team have come into their own and work together to solve the problem.  And Whittaker’s Doctor, for once, isn’t hopelessly passive, taking action even when it may be changing history.
  9. It Takes You Away (6) – A strange, entertaining story with a few twists, and a talking frog.  I didn’t think the story was the best, but I did enjoy the bonkers quality of it, and the sign that Chibnall-era Doctor Who was recognizing the previous 10 series of Doctor Who and finding new ways to build on it.
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4) – A total bummer of a finale that seems only to function as a sampler of the worst aspects of Series 11.  The rest of the series looks worse in retrospect because one could no longer believe it was building to something meaningful.

If you have time and desire to read more about Series 11, check out this excellent post from the Movie Blog.

Okay, now we move on to the New Year’s Day Special!  I have high hopes.

Series 11 episodes ranked:

  • Demons of the Punjab (8)
  • The Witchfinders  (8)
  • The Tsuranga Conundrum (7)
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7)
  • Rosa (7)
  • It Takes You Away (6)
  • Arachnids in the UK  (6)
  • The Ghost Monument (5)
  • Kerblam! (5)
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4)

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TV Review: Class (2016)

Title: Class
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8

This spinoff series from Doctor Who was designed as a young adult science fiction drama with the scripts being written by popular young adult author Patrick Ness.  It’s curious that in many ways Class is darker and more mature (and more gory) than Doctor Who, although teens actually do like that kind of thing, tv productions don’t generally recognize it. The premise of a team of people fighting off the monster-of-the-week that emerges from a rift in space and time is very much reminiscent of the very grown-up Torchwood.

The show is set at the Coal Hill School, a frequent setting of Doctor Who going back to the first episode in 1963.  Because of the Doctor’s frequent visits to Coal Hill with the TARDIS time and space have become unstable creating the rift.  The Doctor has also placed two alien refugees at the school, disguised as human for their protection: Charlie, the prince of the Rhodians, and Ms. Quill, a revolutionary from the same planet who is tied to Charlie by a mental link that forces her to act his protector.  They are each the only survivors of their species after genocide by the Shadow Kin.

The rest of the kids are ordinary, highly-intelligent students with the typical problems of teenagers. Ram is talented football player who grieves the loss of his girlfriend to the Shadow Kin.  April is nerdy and well-behaved, but hides a troubled past with her father.  Tanya is the youngest in the group having moved up three years at the school and comes from a Nigerian immigrant family.  Matteusz is a Polish immigrant who is ostracized by his parents for being gay, and has a romance with Charlie.

The cast are all really charming and the show does a great job at developing their characters, albeit sometimes unevenly to serve the plot.  The scripts are especially good at exploring grief and young people learning to trust and work with one another. Ms. Quill is a scene stealing anti-hero, revolutionary become physics teacher.  The Shadow Kin are the main villain in this series and the four episodes they appear in are strained by the Shadow Kin being rather ridiculous and uninteresting.

The best two episodes come near the end of the series.  Episode 6 – “Detained” – is a bottle episode where the five students are shoved out of normal space-time and encounter a creature that makes them confess uncomfortable truths.  It’s good drama and also symbolic of young people learning to communicate with one another honestly.  The next episode – “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” – features Ms. Quill on adventure using a TARDIS-like device to travel into metaphysical realities in search of regaining her free will.  It’s a very imaginative and really lets Katherine Kelly to expand her character and acting chops.

Unfortunately, Class was canceled after one season, which is possibly a good thing because the cliffhanger hints at a premise that I don’t think would’ve worked well.  If the showrunners had known that they had only one season I think that they could’ve have reshaped these 8 episodes into a more self-contained miniseries.  But now we’ll just have to use our imaginations – and Big Finish audio dramas – to find out to find out what happens next.

Podcasts of the Week for Two Weeks Ending May 19

I’m not doing well at getting these podcast recommendations up every week, but here’s a good crop of podcast for your listening pleasure.

HUB History :: The Battle of Jamaica Plain

There was a gang shootout right here in my own neighborhood over a 100 years ago that had international implications and ended up involving Winston Churchill, and I’d never heard of it?!?

Hidden Brain :: Baby Talk: Decoding the Secret Language of Babies

It’s been a long while since I’ve had a nice chat with a baby.

Planet Money :: The Land of Duty Free

The mass quantities of liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, and perfume sold in airports has always fascinated/perplexed me.  Here’s the story of how the duty free shop got started at Shannon Airport in Ireland.  It also confirms my suspicions that duty free shop purchases aren’t really bargains.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders

A live performance of LeVar Burton reading a hillarious/poignant story about a worldwide apocalypse, a genie in a bottle, theater criticism,  and the nature of wishes, complete with an interview with the author

BackStory :: Shock of the New

The history of World’s Fairs fascinates me and this episode commemorates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with special focus on women’s and African American perspectives on the fair.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cherokee Story Slam

The stories and life of the talented Robert Lewis.

More or Less: Behind the Stats :: Tulipmania mythology

The Dutch tulip bubble always makes a good story about economics and finance, but the truth of the story is not as dramatic as the myths, albeit more interesting in many ways.


TV Review: Doctor Who (2017)

Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.

TV Review: Sherlock (2017)

Title: Sherlock
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 3

Since 2010, the BBC has presented the reimagined adventures of Sherlock Holmes set in modern-day London starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson.  It may sound facile, but after watching this fourth season, I wish the show had stuck with telling stories of two men solving mysteries.  It seems that this show has gone from being about a man with remarkable abilities in gritty, everyday London to being a show about a man with superpowers in a fantasy world paralleling our own.

The purpose of each episode in this series seems to be to put a character through emotional and physical torment and see how they react – Mary (Amanda Abbington) in “The Six Thatchers,” John in “The Lying Detective,” and Sherlock in “The Final Problem.”  It’s a credit to the acting talent of these actors (and others in supporting roles) that the show remains compelling to watch, but the absence of story (and mystery and adventure) is clearly missing in this series.  That the series is a set of three 90-minute “feature-length” episodes doesn’t help as the emotional and character arcs would be developed better over a longer series.

The end of the series appears to be resetting Sherlock to its original “Holmes/Watson solve a mystery premise,” while at the same time rumors are swirling that the show is now at an end.  I do hope it returns, because it is still a compelling show to watch, but I hope the showrunners and writers take some time to rest and reconsider before creating another series.

Movie Review: An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)

TitleAn Adventure in Space and Time
Release Date: 22 November 2013
Director: Terry McDonough
Production Co: British Broadcasting Company
Country: UK
Language: English
Genre: Docudrama
Rating: ****

This movie recreates the history of the birth of the BBC family science-fiction classic Doctor Who.  You can tell it’s the early 60s because everyone smokes and the clothing is fabulous, but also gives a feel for a much different era (just a decade after the end of WWII rationing) when a science-fiction show would be shocking and new.  It’s also interesting that a show that would become a British cultural icon was created by a Canadian (Sidney Newman), produced by the first woman producer on a BBC drama (Verity Lambert), and initially directed by a man born in India (Waris Hussein).  The film focuses mainly on Lambert’s challenge of getting the show off the ground as well as the first star of the show William Hartnell dealing with ill-health and memory loss while creating a classic character.  All of the lead actors do a terrific job and really look the part and make for a charming if bittersweet story.  While some of the facts of the real story are modified for dramatic effect, it is a good introduction to the series.

For a more detailed history of Doctor Who‘s origins, check out this article on the Oxford University Press blog.