TV Review: Clara and the Doctor ‘Face the Raven’

Joivan Wade, Peter Capaldi, and Jenna Coleman

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) want to clear Rigsy’s (Joivan Wade) name. Photo: BBC Worldwide Limited

Caution: This review contains spoilers.

The latest episode of Doctor Who takes the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) to the hidden streets of London, where aliens reside somewhat peacefully away from the world. Lording over them is none other than Me/Ashildr (Maisie Williams) as an enforcer. Sentencing for crimes is rather strict, resulting in a tattoo that counts down to zero. At zero, the Raven comes in for the kill.

Clara’s friend, Rigsy (Joivan Wade), has the tattoo on his neck, but he has no memory of killing a creature the day before. Clara and the Doctor seek to clear his name through their investigation. They speak with the victim’s son, who really turns out to be a girl (Naomi Ackie). The situation turns out to be a trap for the Doctor, laid by Ashildr and presently unknown enemies.

Ashildr promised her personal protection to Clara at the Doctor’s insistence. However, Clara gets Rigsy to transfer the death counter to her. It’s reminiscent of the Doctor’s willingness to take risks, like the time he took the 60 seconds on the Orient Express to figure out the mummy. However, Clara’s gamble backfires, since another one of Ashildr’s deals only extended to Rigsy.

The Doctor suffers major losses here: Clara’s death and surrendering his TARDIS key. It’s not clear who contracted Ashildr to go after the Doctor and teleport him away. The Daleks, Missy, or even the Gallifreyans could easily fit that role. If Clara’s echoes are around, there’s a chance that we’ll be seeing her again as well.

Unfortunately, season nine has been rather disappointing so far. The two-part format has been largely unnecessary with weak scripts and only a mere flicker of excitement by the end of the second part. Here, we’re back to the single episodes, but again, the stories are not particularly strong. There’s an opportunity in next week’s episode ‘Heaven Sent’ to retool things and get back on track.

One of the other larger questions for the series is the identity of the next companion. Ashildr is not a likely candidate, given that the Doctor wants her to stay out of his way. For now, River Song (Alex Kingston) is coming back for the Christmas Special, which should be interesting to see. There’s already an amusing promotional photo circulating through social media, depicting an uneasy River holding onto the Doctor’s shoulder. What trouble will they be taking on together and what sort of dynamic will their relationship have?


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Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Ewan McGregor in ‘Last Days in the Desert.’ Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

It seems difficult to create a fresh perspective on Jesus, given all of the films and television specials that have been released over the years. However, director and writer Rodrigo García was able to do just that in his latest film, Last Days in the Desert. He focuses on a few days at the very end of the forty-day period that Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spent in the desert, fasting and praying before starting his active ministry.

García and producer Julie Lynn were both interviewed recently at the Virginia Film Festival by Harry Chotiner, a professor at New York University. The director, appearing on a large screen through video chat, summed up his film as a story about men “finding destiny under powerful fathers.”

One startling aspect of the film is a significant casting decision: Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. “Lucifer uses human ways to destabilize Jesus,” García said. “He’s the least politically correct character.” Save for a couple additions of jewelry and his evil smirks, Lucifer looks the same as Jesus. His abilities in shape-shifting and mimicry are both entertaining and creepy at once.

There are accounts in the Bible about Lucifer’s efforts to tempt Jesus – asking him to turn stones to bread, jump from a pinnacle, and turn from God. These parts of Scripture are ignored in favor of a different plot. Coming upon a family in the middle of the desert, Jesus is challenged by Lucifer to resolve their problems. The family, which remains unnamed, has a father (Ciarán Hinds), a son (Tye Sheridan), and a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). The son dreams of going to Jerusalem, but the father wants build him a house and remain in the desert. The major issue is communication, which places Jesus somewhat in the role of intermediary. Second to Lucifer, Ciarán Hinds as the father gets some of the best lines. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk,” the father says about himself and his son. “We’re not women.”

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner.

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner. Photo: Pat Cuadros

When other films depict Jesus at work, he’s not usually undertaking dusty and potentially backbreaking tasks like lifting huge stones, as he does here. That level of strain tends to be saved for the carrying of the cross. Additionally, survival itself in the desert is an arduous endeavor, as he copes with fasting, isolation, and the weather. The desolate sands and rocky outcroppings seem to dwarf McGregor as he walks along, his dark brown garb standing out amidst lighter coloring of the terrain.

It’s also interesting to note that the script, totaling to a mere 60 pages, is rather sparse in dialogue. “More than a couple of agents called asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” García remarked. Thus the frames, artfully rendered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), convey the moods in the silent moments beautifully and enable the film to be more of a psychological study of Jesus’s fears and doubts. It’s not a fool proof presentation though, leaving some moments hanging.

It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that the ending of Last Days in the Desert includes the Crucifixion. “I didn’t want people going out of the theater wondering, ‘Who was that?’” Garcia explained. There are, in essence, three possible endings running together that encompass the weakest part of the film. The overall conclusion feels disjointed, detached, and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Last Days in the Desert is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful. It’s a version capable of stimulating discourse among religious and non-religious individuals alike.

This article was first published on, under the same title.

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Middleburg Film Festival Review: ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’

'Hitchcock/Truffaut' Screenshot

Photo by Philippe Halsman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group and the Middleburg Film Festival

Set for release next month, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a delightful, 80-minute documentary directed by Kent Jones. It draws on insights from celebrated filmmakers looking back at a series of meetings that occurred between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in 1962. Truffaut, a founder of New Wave cinema, requested the interview so that he might “free Hitchcock from his reputation as a light entertainer.” In 1966, he published those conversations in a book.

The running commentary by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and others is illuminating about their reverence for these two great cinematic giants. However, the center stage remains with Hitchcock and Truffaut in the old photographs and their film footage. The book itself, as one sees in the close-up shots, includes frame-by-frame analysis from many of Hitchcock’s films. But their dialogue has its full impact now by being layered directly over the clips, the way you might expect a film lecture to go. Read the rest of this entry »

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Book Tour: Ted Koppel’s ‘Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath’

Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel – Credit: Bruce Guthrie

Ten years ago this month, Ted Koppel gave his last broadcast as the anchor of ABC’s Nightline. The 75-year-old journalist has not retired completely from the news business, contributing to various news outlets like National Public Radio, BBC World News America, and NBC News. This year, he released a book entitled Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. He stopped by the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last Thursday for a discussion about it with Robert Siegel, the highly regarded host of NPR’s All Things Considered. Read the rest of this entry »

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Middleburg and Virginia Film Festivals: ‘Ithaca’

Ithaca Promo Photo

Photo used with permission from the Middleburg Film Festival

Meg Ryan stopped by the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville for a sold-out screening of her directorial debut, Ithaca. Since last month, the actress-director has visited Virginia twice to promote this film adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, beginning with the world premiere in Middleburg. Ithaca was shot in Richmond and Petersburg, cementing those Virginia connections.

The World War II drama opens with fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) riding towards town on his bike. He’s determined to be the best messenger at the local telegraph office. He is hired by Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) despite being underage. His lofty goal insights perhaps a little envy from his direct supervisor, Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater), who was the previous “Number One” years before.

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Virginia Film Festival: Oliver Stone Revisits ‘Born on the Fourth of July’

Oliver Stone

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

Even 26 years after its theatrical release, Born on the Fourth of July is a film that can be difficult to watch. Focusing on Vietnam War veterans, it tells the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a Marine who eventually becomes a strong anti-war activist. In the film, his team accidentally kills women and children during the conflict. He is also responsible for an unfortunate incident of friendly fire. What ensues is a downward spiral into violence, promiscuity, and alcoholism as Kovic wrestles with guilt and his physical limitations.

The Academy Award-winning film was screened during the Virginia Film Festival last weekend at Charlottesville’s iconic Paramount Theater. Oliver Stone emerged shortly thereafter for an interview with Bob Toplin, a retired professor of history at the University of Virginia. The legendary and controversial director explained that funding for the film was pulled at the last minute in the 1970s, shelving the project for nearly a decade. “Born on the Fourth was what [studios] considered a bummer,” he added. Platoon, another war film, was one of those so-called “ten-year movies,” too.

Adapting Kovic’s memoir was a challenge for Stone, who opted for a chronological format rather than the elliptical setup of the book. He also enumerated other changes such as the violent Syracuse confrontation and Kovic’s meeting with Wilson family. Syracuse demonstrations by anti-war protesters never escalated to the horrific incidents at Kent State, but the “provocative” scene is important for capturing the mood of that time. The scene with the Wilsons was essential, even though it never happened. “I don’t think we missed the spirit of it,” Stone explained. “[Kovic] wanted to go.”

Capturing the pain, violence, and confusion of battle scenes realistically was vital to the project as well. Actors were required to train in an intense boot camp in the jungles of the Philippines. “They hated me,” Stone said, as the audience laughed.

Bob Toplin and Oliver Stone

Professor Bob Toplin and Oliver Stone. Photo: Pat Cuadros

To address the problems from war, the director has some ideas. “When we go to war, we have to send everyone of a certain age and women, too,” he told the crowd. “We’ll get this reality picture and I assure you, there won’t be so many wars.” He suggested cancelling football games and other festive events, keeping everyone focused on the significance of the mission.

Stone’s next project is called Snowden, a film centered on Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents from the National Security Agency. “We have a surveillance state and accept it like we do, like lambs. It’s really bothersome to those who think about it and [Snowden] did,” Stone said. “Whatever you think of him, he was a man who followed his own conscience.” As with Platoon and Born on the Fourth, he faced issues with securing funds for this film. In this case, we won’t have to wait ten years. The backing eventually came from France and Germany, instead of within the United States. Due out next spring, Snowden stars Shailene Woodley, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scott Eastwood, and Nicolas Cage.

Even with such a prolific career as a filmmaker, Stone seemed reserved about his films and their influence. Films with powerful messages have not always changed society but they are still important to develop in order to get the truth out. “You make the movie, you put your heart in, and you let it run,” he concluded.

This article was originally published on under the same title.

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Book Talk: Ethan Hawke’s ‘Rules for Knight’

Ethan Hawke

Photo: Pat Cuadros

Celebrated actor, writer, and director Ethan Hawke came to Washington, DC, this week to promote his new children’s book, Rules for a Knight. He was interviewed by New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot at the historic Sixth & I Synagogue. Hawke admitted that the book grew out of his concerns about how to spend time with his four children. Being a divorced father presented somewhat of a challenge to him. Fortunately, he found that his children liked knights (but not princesses).

“There’s something about knights that makes it cool to be virtuous,” he added. This shared fascination with knights ultimately developed into the book, with illustrations of birds beautifully executed by Hawke’s wife, Ryan. The story consists of a letter written by a Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke to his four children. He expects to die in an impending battle. The knight hopes that his children can lead a noble life based on the lessons he learned.

Audience members at Sixth & I also had a hand in the discussion topics. Yes, his real name is Ethan Hawke. “It sounds like a candy bar,” Hawke’s half-brother told him when they met for the first time. Stage names are interesting to him because it seems easier to take criticism when it’s not directed at ones given name. His well-meaning mother sends him positive online reviews, which also have the negative comments at the bottom. Read the rest of this entry »

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