Moving to the Cloud

Posted on October 6th, 2016 in Technology | No Comments »

Well, hello again.

With my new life as a podcast producer, I seem to have next-to-no time available for blogging, and since the Oscars have been and gone (although they are coming up again soon) and we have no new series of Doctor Who this year, nothing has been drawing me towards the keyboard.

But, here’s a quick update regarding my digital entertainment.

We’re currently doing-up our loft, and planning on moving the TV upstairs and converting the existing TV room into a dining room. This means that there will be much less room for DVDs but of late I have found myself very reluctant to pick a DVD off the shelf, or even to buy a new movie on DVD. Buying on iTunes, or watching on Netflix just seems so much more convenient. Imagine having to get up, find a box, open the box, fish out the disc, open the drawer of the DVD player, put the disc in – Christ, it’s like the dark ages.

Surely, the right thing to do is to convert all of these existing DVDs to digital form and then play them back through the Apple TV…? Well, yeah.

Let’s look at what I wanted to achieve doing this.

  • Have copies of movies and TV shows I’ve bought on DVD available on my home network.
  • Preserve extra trailers, outtakes, documentaries.
  • Preserve commentary tracks, trivia subtitles and other elements in the main feature itself.
  • Be able to put all physical DVDs out of sight, out of mind, knowing I have high quality digital versions available on-demand.

Assuming disc space is no object (more on that later) one obvious solution would be to rip complete copies of the DVDs to .ISO files, maybe throwing away features I’m certain I don’t want, but preserving complete copies of the whole disc structure. This would mean that I definitely wasn’t trading down in terms of quality and the handful of discs which use wonky things like seamless branching would be viewable, but I don’t have an easy way of viewing those files with my current set-up.

Some time ago, a lot of my TV-watching was via a Windows Media Centre PC, connected to a NAS drive, and one reason why I didn’t jump to upgrade to an Apple TV was that this device had no ability to move files, even MP4s, from a NAS to the TV without going via a PC running iTunes, which firstly sounded a bit more Rube Goldberg than I wanted and secondly never actually worked whenever I tried it.

Acquiring the new fourth-generation Apple TV, with its emphasis on apps, also meant that much of my TV watching was via iTunes, Netflix or Hulu (since my Apple TV is firmly of the opinion that it is located somewhere in Delaware). So, I only fell back on downloaded files sent to my NAS when I couldn’t find the show or movie available to purchase or on a subscription anywhere. When this situation did arise, having tried a few different options, I settled on an app called Infuse which seemed very adept at not just playing back all sorts of files but downloading artwork and meta data too. However, Infuse is not at all willing to play back .ISO files (and in any case, part of the joy of this virtual library would be freedom from elaborate menus and unskippable copyright warnings) so some other system was going to be necessary.

When I asked Facebook friends what I should do, the most popular answer by far was Synology plus Plex. I had played around with Plex at the same time as I first installed Infuse, but it suffered from the same problem as the old Apple TV. Since my WD NAS drive is a fairly limited device, it can’t run the Plex software itself, which means I have to run Plex on my PC and then hook the Apple TV up to the PC and blah blah blah. Having looked into this further, the Synology plus Plex option does seem like the best choice, but fairly expensive; probably north of £500 (depending on the capacity and RAID option). I wanted to see if I could at least get started with what I had: my WD NAS drive and Infuse.

This brings up the issue of how to rip the DVDs and how to preserve all the features I wanted. Some years ago, when I regularly ripped DVDs to watch on my iPad (instead of downloaded content from iTunes) I remember having to choose exactly which audio and subtitle track I wanted (resulting in “burned-in” subtitles on the ripped file) but these days, it’s much easier to create MKV or MP4 files with multiple audio and subtitle tracks built in, and Infuse has no problem switching between these, so that part seemed covered. The final choice was whether to re-encode or not.

I downloaded Handbrake, which I’d used many times before, but always found it rather cryptic and awkward, and gave it Tim Burton’s Batman to play with. My laptop coughed and whirred for a very long time before eventually spitting out a very watchable 2Gb MP4 file complete with optional commentary track, which Infuse was delighted to display on my Apple TV (or indeed my iPad).

I then tried a much simpler-looking, although no less powerful, product called MakeMKV which has a very simple interface and which seems to chew through DVDs of all makes and stripes without a murmur. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t attempt to re-encode the video data on the DVD, it just pours it into the MKV container (again with whatever audio and subtitle tracks you want or don’t want). This results in a larger file, but also means that with my fairly inexpensive HP Envy laptop with its new USB3 DVD drive (twenty quid off Amazon) can create a movie file in about 20 minutes instead of the two hours it took Handbrake.

And now that Virgin Media have upgraded my equipment, and I have Wi-Fi through the whole flat instead of just within twenty yards of the router, throwing big files across the network is quick-and-easy too. It seems to work much better to rip the movie to my local disc and then copy it to the NAS, but the copying only takes an extra ten minutes and can be done while the next movie is ripping. I make folders on the NAS for each movie and add the special features that I want to the same folder and on Infuse, I can see the movie and the appropriate extra features all on one screen. Nice.

So, the process is underway, with a few caveats. Firstly, the movies I’m ripping are now around 4Gb in size (blu-rays can stay on the shelf for now) and my NAS is only 2Tb. So I may very well run out of space before I run out of movies (I have around 600 DVDs, many of which are box-sets, and that doesn’t include my complete set of Doctor Who DVDs). Buying a second similar NAS would be fine and inexpensive, but I would have to have some sensible way to decide what went on what drive because Infuse will not merge the two libraries.

Secondly, one NAS (or even two) and no RAID means no redundancy and no back-ups. If there’s a drive failure or a flood or a power surge, then all my work could be undone. Of course, I’ll still have the discs, but ripping them all is going to take months, maybe a year – not something I want to do twice. So, the long-term plan has to be some kind of Synology box or similar, but for now I’m just going to see how long it takes me to rip my current collection, while they are still conveniently close to hand.

Finally, ripping without re-encoding has generated a few special features which look nastily interlaced when played back via Infuse, but so far I’ve been able to deal with these by running them through Handbrake and it hasn’t affected any main features yet.

There will no doubt be Oscar reviews and previews soon.


At the time of writing, I have got to H but that leaves out a lot of TV show box-sets, all the Disney animations and all the Doctor Who DVDs as well as the ones already downgraded to an overflow shelf, but things are going smoothly. It would be a huge bummer to lose all this work of course, and my new 6Tb WD MyCloud is still not a RAID system, so I currently have no back-ups save the discs themselves. However, in theory Amazon Drive offering literally unlimited cloud storage for £55pa is the answer. I say in theory because in practice, as soon as I began the back-up process, my Virgin router immediately killed my internet connection, even when I was throttling the upload bit-rate to a stupidly low level. The solution eventually became a new router (this one) with the Virgin “Super Hub” demoted to modem only. Now slinging big files around the network is even quicker, with the process of moving the 600Gb or so of files already ripped from one NAS to the other achieved overnight with Windows Explorer (definitely not the fastest way of doing it). And testing the upload to Amazon, it seems stable, but I’m going to focus on ripping for now, and make the uploading a separate (no doubt months-long) project.

Victoria Wood

Posted on April 22nd, 2016 in Culture | No Comments »

victoria wood

I’m writing this on Friday 22 April, two days after hearing the dreadful news of the death of Victoria Wood.

A lot of my time recently has been spent on producing the Guilty Feminist podcast. One of my tasks for today was to do the final edit on our next episode, about Representation. Hosts Deborah and Sofie and guest Margaret Cabourn-Smith hilariously and accurately skewer the lack of women and other diversities on most television comedy shows. I want to say a few words here about the debt which they and others owe to Victoria Wood.

The twelve episodes of As Seen on TV (and one special) which she created in the 1980s are some of the best British television sketch comedy since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s not always appreciated that whereas shows like The Two Ronnies or Not the Nine O’Clock News employed armies of writers, Victoria Wood wrote every word of every episode on her own.

As well as crucifyingly funny sketches featuring a brilliant supporting cast, these episodes also included Victoria Wood performing blistering stand-up comedy. Despite all of the issues which face female stand-up comedians today, many of which are discussed on the Guilty Feminist, it’s nevertheless true that when today’s teenagers turn on the television, they can see people such as previous Guilty Feminist guests: Sara Pascoe, Shappi Khorsandi, Jo Caulfield or Roisin Conaty. Women, performing stand-up comedy alongside their male counterparts.

But in 1984, when As Seen on TV was first transmitted, stand-up comedy on British television was pretty much exclusively male and much of it was still mired in the working man’s club comedy of the 1970s. The alternative comedy revolution had begun, but it was still in its infancy and still very much a boys club. The Young Ones (starring five men) had only just gone out. Saturday Live (with only male stars among its regulars) was still a year away. French and Saunders wouldn’t get their own show until 1987.

So, when it comes to women performing stand up comedy on television, the only role models for Victoria Wood would have been vague memories of Joyce Grenfall, or people like Jim Davidson, Stan Boardman and Bernard Manning. Possibly she’d managed to see Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller or Elaine May, who knows? And yet she managed to create – seemingly out of nowhere – a style of stand-up comedy which today still seems completely modern. She was personal and confessional, but never needy or neurotic, satirising the mores of contemporary life but still happy to make herself the butt of the joke. Whereas shows like The Young Ones, as brilliant and ground-breaking as they were, have dated rather badly, Victoria Wood’s comedy still seems amazingly fresh. Of her contemporaries, I would say only Dave Allen can even come close to matching her.

She was followed, in pretty short order, by dozens of others; many still working, some all-but forgotten: Jo Brand, Donna McPhail, Jenny Eclair, Rhona Cameron, Helen Lederer, Jenny Lecoat, Morwena Banks and many more. But Victoria Wood blazed the trail which Sofie and Deborah are following to this day, managing to be not just the first female but for years the very best comedian on British television, man or woman.

I can’t quite believe she’s gone. We are dedicating the next episode of the Guilty Feminist to her.

Victoria Wood. RIP.

Oscars 2016: Predictions

Posted on February 28th, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars! And I will be running my usual sweepstake for a larger-than-usual gathering as we stay up in our jim-jams to watch the fun. Although competitors are encouraged to submit their answers without looking at what others have plumped for, I’m going to publish my predictions now. My track record is hardly unblemished, but nevertheless here’s what I think.

Best Picture

The Revenant is sweeping all before it. Despite a surge in support for both the excellent and precisely-judged Room and the worthy-but-dull Spotlight, it’s quite clear that nothing is going to stop Leo sleeping inside a dead horse. Not my favourite of the year (I can’t decide between Room and Mad Max) and a film I admire rather than love, but it’s certainly extraordinary in a year when many of the nominees are rather run-of-the-mill.

Best Director

Again, will almost certainly go to Iñárritu, although there is just a chance that George Miller could nick it if we have one of those years where Best Director and Best Picture go to different movies.

Best Actor

Redmayne, Fassbender, Damon and Cranston need not even bother to write a speech. This is Leo’s.

Best Actress

There’s a lot of Academy love for Cate Blanchett, whose performance in Carol really is something special, but I both hope and expect Brie Larson to take this one. Charlotte Rampling appears to have pissed in her own chips but I did hear very good things about 45 Years.

Best Supporting Actor

Obviously, Mark Rylance gave the best performance out of these five, but soft-hearted Academy voters are going to give this to Stallone. Spare a thought for Domnhall Gleeson, appearing in four Oscar nominated films this year (The Revenant and Brooklyn both nominated for Best Picture plus Ex Machina nominated for Screenplay and Star Wars nominated in various technical categories) but failing himself to pick up an acting nod.

Best Supporting Actress

This one is harder to call. I’m pretty sure it won’t be Rachel McAdams who doesn’t get enough to do in Spotlight, but honestly you could make a good case for any of the other four. I’m going to go for Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl but also absolutely incredible in Ex Machina.

Best Original Screenplay

Again, a number of worthy contenders, and white guilt might force the Academy to hand this to Straight Outta Compton – although I hope they realise that both credited writers are white! I can also see Bridge of Spies and Ex Machina winning here, but I think Spotlight just has the edge.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This probably deserves to go to either Room or Carol, but I think the sheer novelty of the construction of The Big Short will take Adam McKay all the way to the stage.

Those are my predictions – I’ll post again tomorrow and let you know how I did.


Oscars 2016: The Big Short and Trumbo

Posted on February 21st, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

big short

Trumbo’s Oscar-buzz faded quite rapidly, and so it’s not up for Best Picture, but Deborah and I nevertheless took the opportunity to double-bill it with The Big Short in the delightful faux-hipster environs of the recently-opened Picturehouse Central near Piccadilly Circus. They make an interesting pair – both true life stories of poor decision-making among the America’s rich and powerful and both helmed by directors known for comedy for whom this is a more dramatic piece of work.

The Big Short is undoubtedly the more interesting of the two. Based on Michael Lewis’s excellent book of the same name, it has to deal with several elements that make it tricky to package into a two-hour entertainment. The first is the fact that there were several independent groups of people who all hoped to make a profit by placing a “bet” on the housing market collapsing rather than booming (a “short” rather than a “long” position). Any one of these might provide a traditional protagonist, with some kind of recognisable “arc” through the piece, but director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) wants to include everyone from the book.

Then there’s the problem that much of the book is basically a lecture about the workings of Wall Street in the early 2000s. Lewis’s style is breezy and informal, and he has a great talent for picking out the key details and keeping the humour and character stuff to the fore, but there’s still a lot of factual information to take on board. To begin with, McKay populates the cast with a range of strong comedy actors who can fill up this vast array of characters with their own tics, quirks, improvised put-downs and face-pulling (Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling lead the way, but we also get Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan and many more). But he also gives most of them permission to address the audience, either in voice over or by directly talking to the camera, sometimes to emphasise what has just happened, other times to flatly contradict it. And then, he wheels out celebrity cameos to give brief explanatory lectures.

The narrative is so totally extraordinary that this kind of approach does seem in keeping. Allied to this is the need for the audience to empathise with these people who – even if they aren’t quite as dumb or quite as venal as the rest of their breed – are nevertheless hoping to profit tremendously from an economic disaster which will ruin the lives of countless millions.

Sometimes this need to inject a shot of vinegar into the brilliantly coloured candy of the movie is handled clumsily, as when Brad Pitt is forced to lecture his two young neophyte investors about their inappropriate jubilation. Elsewhere, it’s more subtle. Early on, Carell’s team goes to visit homeowners who they suspect may have been sold vastly subprime loans. One resident is aghast to learn that his landlord has taken out the mortgage in his dog’s name and has not been keeping up the repayments. Later, the same family is seen living out of their car, which passes without comment.

However, the overall approach boarders on the hyperactive, like an over-excited child always eager to show you yet another new thing and get another reaction out of you. And this creates some disappointingly unintended consequences. McKay is rightly careful not to allow the material to become sentimental, but when Steve Carell’s Mark Baum finally breaks down and talks about his brother’s death to his wife, McKay can’t bear to let the camera rest on his face, and so frantically cuts around the scene, slathering music all over the top. Not only does this mean that Carell can’t show us where the character actually is, but in a movie with precious few female characters as it is this robs Marisa Tomei of her only scene with any emotional power at all. There’s a whiff of misogyny from other quarters as well. Margot Robbie shows up as herself to explain one financial concept – naked in a bubble bath. Male cameos tend to be experts like Anthony Bourdain and Richard Thaler who are allowed to keep their clothes on. All of which suggests that the movie wants to celebrate these awful lifestyles as much as it would like us to think it’s being fearlessly critical of them.

And more familiarity with the true facts tends to breed contempt. When Gosling turns to the camera after one of Carell’s more outré moments and cheekily tells us “This is true – Mark Baum actually did that,” it’s great – until you realise that Mark Baum is a fictional character and while a man called Steve Eisman is said to have uttered the words which Carell used, his backstory has been completely rewritten for the sake of the movie. Should someone else have turned around and pointed that out too? I don’t really know, but I do know that the movie is pretty uneven, albeit also pretty entertaining.

Where does that leave us? Well, The Big Short ultimately I think does do a fair job of telling the story of the credit crunch from an interesting perspective, and the vigorous performances keep the bubbles in the champagne for the most part of the running time. It’s also great to see such an individual and unusual movie get a Best Picture nomination, even if not all of the experimentation worked for me, and even if it doesn’t actually have a hope in hell of winning.

Trumbo is rather more by-the-numbers and suffers from the same problem that plagues a great many biopics. By starting the action in the 1940s and following screenwriter Dalton Trumbo all the way to his return to the Hollwood fold in the 1970s, the filmmakers give themselves an awful lot of ground to cover, with the result that characters pop up and disappear and whole sequences flash by without really having the time to register.

The through-line of Trumbo’s battles with the Un-American Activities Commission (personified mainly by Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper) provides a bit of a thread for these sequences to hang on, but the feeling that this is a series of short films is hard to dispel. So we get Trumbo Picks a Fight, followed by Trumbo Behind Bars, followed by Trumbo Writes for Peanuts, followed by Trumbo’s Script Factory and finally Trumbo and Spartacus, but there’s precious little here that really resonates or illuminates.

What we do get, once again, are some bright performances. Diane Lane gets a little more to do than Marisa Tomei did in The Wife Part, John Goodman is marvellous as ever as schlock producer Frank King, Louis CK does great work as Arlen Hird (one of very few fictional characters), Alan Tudyk is criminally underused as Ian McLellan Hunter, Helen Mirren has great fun as Hopper and Richard Portnow seems born to play Louis B Mayer.

There are also some more recognisable figures resurrected. Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) fussily cuts between old footage and recreated events, but can’t settle on a style for portraying famous people. Most successful is probably Michael Stuhlbarg, who summons up a little of Edward G Robinson’s appearance and manner, but makes no attempt at that extraordinary voice, and so creates a wholly believable character. David James Elliot makes a decent fist of John Wayne’s voice, but looks nothing like him and so comes across as an impressionist. Least successful of all is spindly Dean O’Gorman who has nothing of Kirk Douglas’s burly charisma – and the obvious parallels between Spartacus and Trumbo’s own treatment seem to have evaded all concerned.

But the dialogue is bright and breezy enough, and the film has one last Trumbo card to play – Bryan Cranston in the leading role. With his lean frame, Harry Potter glasses, Terry-Thomas moustache, Hunter S Thompson cigarette holder and Peewee Herman suit, he presents an extraordinary physical presence and Cranston fills him with manic energy and determination while gracefully aging him across the years of the film. It’s an amazing, precisely judged performance and almost makes the whole film worthwhile.

Oscars 2016: Room

Posted on February 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »


Based on the 2010 novel and adapted for the screen by the author, Room is the story of…

No, wait – stop.

It’s almost impossible to go and see a movie today without having already sat through countless trailers, clips, interviews, reviews and featurettes. If you haven’t heard anything about Room yet, then just stop reading now and go and see it. I wish I had gone in “cold” because as much as I got out of it, I can’t imagine how much more rewarding it would be to see especially the first third gradually unfold.

Okay. The rest of this review won’t be too spoilerific, but I’m not going to type on egg-shells either. Where was I?

Room is the story of Brie Larson’s Joy Newsome, kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave at the age of 17. Now, seven years later, she is bringing up her five-year-old son Jack who has no knowledge or understanding of any kind of world outside the four walls of “room”. Not knowing any of this before going in would make the first third or so of the film a horrible puzzle to be unravelled. We are just presented with Joy and Jack’s mundane life within this tiny space – making a birthday cake, running from one side of the room to another for exercise, watching TV. Eventually, both Jack’s lack of comprehension of anything outside, and the appearance of their captor “Old Nick” makes it terrifyingly clear what has transpired.

When Old Nick loses his job, Joy realises that if he is no longer able to pay for even the meagre rations they live on, then he will have no option but to kill them both. She attempts to get him to take Jack to hospital by pretending he has a fever and when that doesn’t work, she hatches an even more desperate plan to have Jack play dead and get Nick to take away the “body” in a rolled-up carpet.

This execution of this escape plan is some of the most tense and buttock-clenching movie making I’ve seen and it’s also around this time both that the movie transitions into its second phase and that the importance of point of view comes to the fore. Director Lenny Abramson (Frank) brilliantly captures Jack’s disorientation as he finally sees something of the world, but from this moment on, he and writer Emma Donoghue keep Jack at the centre of the action. As the police officers who pick him up struggle to piece together just who he is and where he came from, we are denied even a hint of what is going on with Nick and Joy back in the prison.

The remaining two thirds of the movie documents Jack and Joy’s slow rehabilitation as they come to terms with how much has changed and how much is unfamiliar. Joy reconnects with her parents William H Macy (removed from the narrative with unseemly haste) and Joan Allen, faces the overwhelmingly media scrutiny that her high-profile case has attracted and relearns how to be a parent, a daughter, a person in the world. Jack gradually learns to trust adults and other children, to play with toys and games, and begins to experience life as a normal five-year-old for the first time.

Unlike last year’s over-praised Boyhood, which set up the possibility of an adult story told through gradually maturing eyes, and then fudged it with a slack narrative structure which wandered in-and-out of its characters’ lives seemingly at random, Room is absolutely ruthless in telling the story only through Jack’s eyes and it’s all the better and richer for it. Giving us only glimpses of the complexities of the adult emotions, crises and conflicts does nothing to rob them of emotional power, but prevents them from tipping into TV movie-of-the-week mawkish sentimentality as well as giving us a fascinating and unique lens through which to see this tale of awful horror, terrifying ordeal, grim recovery and finally closure.

Larson, who has been a perky figure in a number of movies and TV shows before now, absolutely shines in this role of a lifetime, investing Joy with a ghastly forced optimism, then a desperate pragmatism and makes her descent into depression and self-loathing entirely believable. But the movie belongs to Jacob Tremblay who is nothing short of extraordinary as Jack. This is either the birth of an acting superstar or a phenomenal piece of coaching and editing by Abramson, or more than likely a perfect combination of the two.

While the story is relatively slight (although still weightier than Brooklyn), the execution is so good and the challenges of the narrative so great that I have little hesitation in naming Room my favourite of the Best Picture nominees so far.

Oscars 2016: Spotlight and The Martian

Posted on February 8th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Spotlight is one of those movies that crept up on me. Before it started making the rounds as Oscar-buzz, I had no idea it even existed. Today, priests molesting kids is often little more than a careless punchline to an “edgy” comedy routine, but in Boston in 2001, it was absolutely unthinkable. Like a modern-day All the President’s Men, the movie focuses not on the vile actions of the priests or the suffering of the victims but on the diligence of the journalists who brought the case to the public’s attention.

Leading the (sometimes absurdly over-praised) “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe is Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, who keeps his wide-eyed mannerisms under control to create a sober portrait of a modest crusader. He is flanked by Rachel McAdams who does much with relatively little to create a softer but no less driven counterpoint to Keaton’s eyes-on-the-prize clarity; and by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar nominated turn, bizarrely appropriating some of Bruce Willis’s facial tics, who is the true heart and soul of much of the movie’s long middle section. The fourth member of the team, Matt Carroll, is played by Brian d’Arcy James who sadly lacks the star-wattage to compete in this company.

Above Keaton and co sit John Slattery as Managing Editor and Liev Schreiber as Editor in Chief. When the movie opens, the new boss is just taking over and Schreiber has tremendous fun making Marty Barron absolutely impossible to read. His impassive declaration over lunch that he intends to make the Boston Globe “indispensable to its readers” hilariously leaves Keaton none-the-wiser about whether he intends to kill off the Spotlight team or retain them.

In fact, it’s Barron who directs them towards the shady goings-on between the DA, the church and the underage population of Boston. His relentless, although underplayed, zeal to strike at not just the wrong-doing but the systemic cover-up hints that he may know more than he is giving away. Likewise, little moments of tension between Keaton, Slattery and Schreiber keep hinting at a forthcoming crisis, feud, conflict of interest or horrible secret. But in the event none of this materialises and everyone just gets on with the job. Schreiber is still fun, but he turns out to be scarcely relevant to the story. And apart from those viewers with a vested interest in seeing the chain of command accurately depicted, I doubt anyone would notice if Slattery’s character was deleted altogether (which might free him up to play Matt Carroll instead – there’s a thought).

That’s this film all over. There are some great cameos from luminaries such as Len Cariou, Billy Crudup and especially Stanley Tucci as a devious but secretive lawyer working with victims, and there are some very well-judged bits of testimony from some of those victims. But generally it sticks strongly to its sober, methodical, procedural playbook with the result that it only flickers into emotional or comedic life very briefly and occasionally.

This is not necessarily to suggest that a more hysterical, heart-tugging, garment-rending version of the film would have been better. On the contrary, it would almost certainly have been worse. But given that – due to the nature of the subject matter – the story can’t be turned into Erin Brockovich or (God help us) Jerry Maguire, I question the need to make a drama out of it at all. With Making A Murderer the latest binge-watching craze, why would not a documentary have told the story just as clearly and soberly?

Listen, I had a good time watching it – or if not a good time, then at least an engrossing time. But the little clues that something more melodramatic might be about to happen between our central characters ended up as distracting. And as a piece of cinema entertainment, while it didn’t do very much wrong, it didn’t really strike me as terribly exceptional either, except possibly in its restraint.

That’s how I’m feeling about most of the movies on the Best Picture list this year. Plenty are solid, workmanlike and entertaining enough, but few if any are genuinely remarkable. True there have so far been no turkeys like Amazingly Long and Incredibly Shit or even ill-conceived misfires like Warhorse but likewise there are no real stand-outs. Even The Revenant, certainly the most extraordinary film of the year, blots its copybook by going all Terrance Malik and wonkily spiritual from time-to-time in a manner which seems rather at odds with the rest of its triumph-over-absurdity storytelling and which is wisely abandoned at the end. It seems I did such a good job of mentally editing this out that I forget to mention it at all in my review. Rather like skimming over all the turgid poetry in The Lord of the Rings.

I also found a cinema still showing The Martian which I had greatly enjoyed reading on holiday a year or two ago. The book is a fast-moving popcorn science adventure story with smart plotting, a great sense of humour and a love for technical details which I really appreciated. There isn’t a lot more to say about the movie which captures the book pretty faithfully and where it does streamline or re-order events, does so intelligently and skilfully. Ridley Scott directs with pace and clarity, and seems generally in control of the narrative. A large group of supporting characters is well-differentiated and brought to life by a pleasingly diverse cast (even if the diversity of the cast does not always match the diversity of the name of the character they are playing). And Matt Damon is a very strong centre for the whole thing. If the climactic sequence is even more demented than the version in the book, that’s made-up-for by the new-for-the-movie coda which gives astronaut Mark Watney a chance to reflect on what his Martian adventures have given him.

So, that just leaves Room and The Big Short. Watch this space…

Oscars 2016 – Nominations and the Hateful Eight

Posted on January 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

The Academy Award nominations for 2016 were announced earlier today and my campaign to see all eight nominees at the cinema before the ceremony is off to a flying start. Here’s an alphabetical list of the films in the running.

The Big Short. Out here next week, and one of those films I would have gone to see anyway. On a good day, might combine breezy character work from funny actors with a clear insight into the systemic problems which contributed to the credit crunch. On a bad day, of course, it could just be a lot of mugging and shouting. Very unlikely to walk off with the top prize.

Bridge of Spies. Pure Hollywood craft and hugely entertaining. Full review here. No nod for Spielberg as best director, but Mark Rylance is nominated for best supporting actor and might have a chance, as does the screenplay. Top three, for sure, but probably won’t win the big prize.

Brooklyn. Sweet, affecting, laugh-out-loud funny, but rather unambitious both structurally and in its presentation. Doesn’t stand a chance of winning, and Saoirse Ronan and Nick Hornby are both going to face heavy competition too for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Full review here.

Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw this at the IMAX but I don’t think I ever reviewed it. The best of the Mad Max films (and how extraordinary that a fourth chapter should ever get even a nomination) it’s probably the most purely entertaining film on the list, and in fact I think the race is between this and The Revenant – it’s that good.

The Martian. This was the one that fell through the cracks, but it’s still showing on a handful of tiny screens, so I will try and catch it in the next few days. I loved the book, and the film seems like a suitable faithful but not slavish version, so I imagine it will be pretty good, but it’s far too boys-own to win, nor does Matt Damon have a chance against DiCaprio. Might win some technical awards if Mad Max doesn’t snaffle them all.

The Revenant. This is it – the one to beat. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and an early favourite not just for Best Picture but Best Director and Best Actor too. My full review is here.

Room. Out here next week, so check back for my full review then.

Spotlight. Out here at the end of the month, so check back here for my full review then.

Not nominated were Joy and The Danish Girl, both of which I am very happy to catch-up with on iTunes, and also Creed which I had no interest in at all.

Also not nominated for Best Picture, but still picking up three other nominations is The Hateful Eight, the self-styled Eighth Film By Quentin Tarantino. I’ve moaned before about how QT’s career since the elegant and thoughtful Jackie Brown has been characterised by a flight from maturity towards gleeful juvenilia. One of the (several) reasons I disliked Django Unchained was that it seemed to have been made by a writer/director who has lost his balls and so couldn’t bear to see his hero parted from his.

Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is yet more pulpy melodrama, but it manages to find a way to exploit all of Tarantino’s habits, tics and vices and turn them into strengths – most of the time at least. Just as Django was a Western, set in the American south, this is a Western, set in the snowy wastes of Wyoming. A stagecoach brings together bounty hunters John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) as well as nervy good-old-boy sheriff-in-waiting Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins in a star-making turn) and Ruth’s captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, gleefully chewing up the scenery). They are in turn deposited at Minnie’s Haberdashery where more distinguished character actors familiar from previous Tarantino movies are already in residence (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen et al), there to wait out the storm, shoot the shit, and blow each others’ brains out.

The three-hour plus film (I saw the “Roadshow” version in 70mm with overture and interval at the Odeon Leicester Square) is split up into six chapters with cute names, as in Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds (and for that matter Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie) and not all of these chapters are presented in chronological order. It also takes a tremendous amount of time for the expected physical violence to erupt, but to criticise the film for being baggy I think is probably unfair.

Django certainly has far more going on than the film’s structure can handle, and Basterds sprawls all over the place (which is partly why the script has to adjust the end of the Second World War, in order to somehow gather up the various narrative threads it has strewn over the preceding two hours). And while Eight doesn’t have anything like Reservoir Dogs lean, propulsive energy, the fact that the characters spend an awfully long time just exchanging back-stories doesn’t stop the whole of the film from being thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing. In fact, as is often the case with Tarantino, the long conversations are largely the point, especially since they do contribute to the melodrama (unlike those in Deathproof for example).

The whole film looks absolutely stunning as well. I admire the perversity of returning to Super Panavision 70 and shooting with lenses made in the 1960s to create some of the widest and most detailed images cinema is capable of and then telling a story set almost entirely in one room. But the old fashioned feel of the celluloid images (created with no digital intermediate) is part of the texture of the story. If I have a concern, it’s a vague wonder about whether this, fairly simple, story really deserves to have all of this care and attention lavished on it. Does shooting in this way inflate the film to epic proportions, which the actual narrative can’t quite live up to?

Well, it’s a close run thing, but I think ultimately the operatic nature of the final reel harmonises the form and the content. This is not a film which is going to tell you very much about the human condition or the nature of America or anything else (despite what the auteur behind the camera might want to believe) but as an pressure-cooker tale of trial-by-wits, in its dementedly stylised way, with its almost Agatha Christie mystery plot (for once, telling the story out of sequence seems to serve a purpose) and with such ripe and juicy performances as these, it really does work.

For such an indulgent director, this is a very controlled piece of filmmaking – still not as grown-up as Jackie Brown, but worlds away from the cartoon nonsense of Kill Bill or the tedious Death Proof.

Oscars 2016: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies

Posted on January 9th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

While waiting for the official list of nominees in a few days’ time, I took in a couple more likely contenders. Brooklyn was a film which passed me by almost completely but then started showing up on all sorts of Best Films of 2015 lists, and has plenty of Oscar buzz attached to it, so I was keen to try and watch it before it left cinemas. And while it passed the time very pleasantly, I’m not at all sure what all the fuss is about.

Theatre director John Crowley helms this slender tale, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, and Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a spunky young woman who has tired of her provincial life in a sleepy Irish village in the early 1950s and (we learn in a flurry of exposition) has arranged passage to Brooklyn, New York, where a boarding house, green card and department store job await her, all arranged by a kindly ex-pat priest. Following the grim details of her voyage, she initially struggles with home sickness but eventually meets a nice boy and proceeds essentially to lead an utterly charmed life.

When tragedy does finally strike and she has to return to Ireland, life there is almost equally charmed, with her New York stories buying her tremendous street cred, and a better job and an equally nice boy are presented to her. Eventually, she makes the right choice and scampers off back to Brooklyn where presumably she pops out babies and lives in domestic bliss.

This is all presented with a great deal of charm and wit, and the supporting cast is stuffed with good turns – notably from Jim Broadbent as the aforementioned priest and Julie Walters playing the kind of batty old Irish landlady she’s cornered the market in for the past thirty years. Other parts are well-cast too with Domnhall Gleeson almost inevitably cropping up as her Irish beau and Emory Cohen – a sort of Diet Coke James Dean or Marlon Brando, all rueful lips and doe eyes and mumbling dialogue – as her Brooklyn boy. And no review of this film would be complete without mentioning James DiGiacomo as the world’s funniest eight-year-old.

So, all the details are well-captured, all the parts are well-played and I was never bored. But as a piece of movie-making, this is pretty thin stuff. There is so little jeopardy, so little tension for great swathes of the film. As luminous as Saiorise Ronan is, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Ailis grow and flourish, it would have meant more if she had been tested even a little. And the real dilemma of the story – will she stay at home in Ireland or return to the unfamiliar but much more exciting world of Brooklyn – takes half the film to appear, and when it does, is somewhat of a foregone conclusion.

A more daring adaptation might have played with the timeline a little, to present this decision as the true focal point of the film. As it is, it just appears as another diverting but not especially moving episode following the equally diverting but rather disconnected Leaving Ireland episode, the Boat Voyage episode, the Meeting an Italian Boy episode and so on.

Adding to the sense of a TV movie rather than a cinema experience is the rather ordinary presentation from the director who shoots, for example, the two contrasting beach scenes in almost exactly the same way. There is nothing done with the camera, lenses, grading, sound or editing which in any way elevates this or makes the story bigger than before.

Maybe this is what fans of the book were looking for, but not having been a fan of the book, I found myself charmed but rather unsatisfied.

Equally charming but rather more satisfying is Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the true story of insurance attorney James Donovan who was involved in negotiating a spy swap in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was being built. This film might suffer from the same slightly episodic feel, as we first meet suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel who is swiftly apprehended by the FBI. Then we are introduced to Donovan, who is given the thankless task of defending him, and quickly finds that American justice is more interested in being seen to be done than actually giving Abel a fair hearing. This narrative is intercut with material relating to the American U2 spy plane programme which eventually results in one Lt Powers being captured, and thus the suggestion of a prisoner exchange, which Donovan must mediate.

As with Brooklyn, each episode unfurls at its own measured pace, but several things elevate this above the other film. Firstly, the script (doctored by – of all people the Coen Brothers) is well aware of the danger of the structure falling apart and so there are plenty of thematic, character and dialogue moments which tether various sections to each other. It’s absolutely clear from quite early on what all of this is about: country, duty, humanity, honour.

Secondly, Spielberg mounts it beautifully and Janusz Kamiński shoots it luminously. There is something stately, elegant, old-fashioned in all the best senses of the word about this film. It was even shot on celluloid! It could almost have been made in 1952, but the clear hindsight of our modern perspective allows all sides to have the fairest of hearings.

Thirdly, among an excellent cast (Jesse Plemons, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda to name but three) Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance do astoundingly good work. Hanks is possibly the only actor alive who could have pulled off Donovan’s crucial speech about the constitution early on without either underselling it or making it sound corny as hell. And Rylance – who was seemingly scared off movies by the horrors of porno-drama Intimacy in 2001 but who seems since to have made-up with the camera – is an understated marvel. With two actors like this, who can tell you whole paragraphs with one flicker of an eyelid, it’s hard to go too far wrong. And the fact that Spielberg (who hasn’t directed a movie set in modern-day since War of the Worlds in 2005) can do this kind of stuff without breaking a sweat shouldn’t cause us to forget how few other directors can marshal sound, light and emotion this way – nor how effective it all is.

This doesn’t quite have the epic power of The Revenant or the breadth of scope of the (oddly similar) Argo, but it’s handsome, grown-up, intelligent movie making and it’s cinema craft of the highest order.

Also worthy of brief mention is The Lobster which is unlikely to trouble Academy voters much, but is a breathtakingly original undertaking. Colin Farrell (paunchy, dead-eyed) is one of a number of guests at a bizarre hotel run by Olivia Colman. Guests have 45 days in which to successfully pair up with another guest or be transformed into the animal of their choosing (Farrell has picked a lobster). Extra time can be obtained by shooting the “loners” who live in the woods during regular hunts.

The film is every bit as demented as it sounds, with great turns from other familiar faces including John C Reilly, Ashley Jensen and Ben Wishaw, but loses momentum a little in the second half when Farrell spends most of his time in the woods with other loners including Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz. Lovely little gags, many of them jet black, pepper the film and the discordant soundtrack and stilted acting style unite the whole very successfully. It certainly won’t bust any blocks but it’s very funny and rather disturbing, all in a good way.

Oscars 2016: The Revenant and Carol

Posted on January 7th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another year, another awards season. Once again, I am attempting to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, on the big screen if at all possible and before the awards ceremony itself. Partly because there are a lot of movies out that I want to see, partly because I’ve not seen many movies at the cinema in recent months apart from the great big blockbusters, and partly because I have had a few free evenings recently, I am attempting to get ahead of the game by going to see some likely contenders before the nominees are announced.

My first visit was to the poky confines of my local Camden Odeon for one of their Screen Unseen showings. The, rather fun, idea of these is that you pay a fiver and sit down to watch a film not yet released in the UK, but with (in theory) no idea what it is until it starts. In practice, they often give some pretty easy clues on their Facebook page, but I rarely look at these.

So it was with some happiness that the film which unspooled on Monday was Alejandra Iñárritu’s much-anticipated The Revenant starring Leonardo diCaprio as an apparently unbreakable fur-trapper fighting for life and revenge in an American wilderness of the 1820s. This is not a film which is remotely interested in spoon-feeding the viewers. The exact nature of di Caprio and company’s organisation, where and when they are, and what relationships – personal and formal – exist within and without are all pretty much left to the viewer to puzzle out. There are no handy captions to tell us what is going on, precious little dialogue of any kind (at least a quarter of which is not in English) and next to nothing in the way of back story.

What it does have is a tremendous immediacy and almost physical power. Although not quite going as far as the apparently single-take Birdman, Iñárritu shoots almost the whole film with long, swooping steadicam takes. When (as happens on several occasions) one of our characters is standing over the other, with a rifle in his face, there is no cut from one man to the other. The camera instead floats around the face of the aggressor and then glides down the barrel of the gun to eventually discover the other person lying on the ground. It’s a technique which makes the two early stand-out sequences (the initial attack on the compound and diCaprio’s mauling at the hands of a bear) utterly terrifying and engrossing.

Once pragmatically ruthless Tom Hardy (once again strangling his vocal cords, Bane-style) and nervy naïf Will Poulter leave diCaprio’s ironically-named Hugh Glass for dead, much of the movie documents his agonising struggle to regain sufficient fitness to return to base and let Captain (I think?) Domhnall Gleeson know what has happened. Let’s have a little talk about diCaprio. When Wolf of Wall Street was released, I mused that I had previously found the career of this appealing but unexceptional actor hard to fathom, but that as crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort I saw something of the power of which he is capable.

Almost uniquely among modern Hollywood leading men, he manages to precisely straddle the divide between “personality” actors, who generally play some variant of themselves (Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr) and “chameleon” actors who routinely transform themselves for each role (Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Christian Bale). (This is not, by the way intended to imply that this division is precise or absolute, nor that one kind of actor is more admirable than the other.) Different wigs and costumes aside, diCaprio generally looks and sounds the same, but there is something bizarrely protean about this blandly good-looking male. Want someone to play a tortured dream thief in an urban psycho adventure? DiCaprio will nail it. Want someone to play a happy-go-lucky conman chancer? DiCaprio is all over it. Want someone to play a delusional US Marshall? DiCaprio is your guy. Need a charming front for your slave-fighting gang? DiCaprio’s got you covered. Quite how he does this still is not clear to me, but now he adds a fiercely protective, utterly determined nineteenth century fur-trapper to his resume.

As I’ve said, the film uses dialogue very sparingly. Often the only sound we can hear is diCaprio’s stertorous breathing, and at times his breath even seems to fog up the lens of the camera – not an effect I can recall ever seeing before. It’s probably a little flabby in the second half, and it’s possibly telling that I began to become more interested in the lies that Hardy was having to tell in the safety of the compound, and less interested in diCaprio’s physical ordeals as the film wore on, but the final confrontation is perfectly satisfying and the film as a whole is an amazing achievement.

Next on my list, in the rather more luxurious confines of the embattled Curzon Soho, was Todd Haynes’ Carol. I’d been hugely impressed with this director’s 2002 offering Far From Heaven and couldn’t wait to see this simple tale (adapted with economy and grace by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith) of forbidden love in the 1950s.

I hope it isn’t a spoiler, but although I hadn’t read the book I was vaguely aware that it was famous not for its ground-breaker depiction of a lesbian affair (although it does depict that and it was ground-breaking) but because the lesbians in question don’t end up dead or insane or grief-stricken. That isn’t to say their story is entirely a happy one, but Haynes accurately steers a path between the tedium of a lack of incident and the deadening effect of too much melodrama.

He is helped enormously by two absolutely stand-out performances without which the entire enterprise would founder. Rooney Mara is incredibly good, her pinched-pixie face and apologetic manner perfectly counter-parted by Cate Blanchett’s far more lavish and statuesque bearing. Weirdly, as much as Mara put me in mind of Audrey Hepburn, Blanchett put me in mind of Katharine.

Although it’s Mara’s Therese Belivet who learns who she is, what she wants and how to order lunch over the course of the movie, it’s no surprise that the title is Carol (and not for example, When Carol Met Therese or the rather more obscure The Price of Salt, the title of the original novel). Blanchett’s Carol Aird presents herself to the world, and to Therese in particular as gloriously and completely in control of her own destiny. In fact, her failing marriage and the struggle with her husband over custody of her child, the improbably-named Rindy, are gradually hollowing her out until she becomes little more than a gaily-painted husk. Finally, in the film’s last reel, she is able to reconstruct her personality and become the person that Therese has begun to love. It’s an incredible journey and Blanchett shines off the screen at every turn.

Ably supported by familiar faces from TV (Sarah Paulson, Jack Lacy, Kyle Chandler – even Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney), this centre pairing is certain to be among the Best Actress nominees – my guess would be Blanchett for Actress and Mara for Supporting Actress so they aren’t competing with each other.

I do have one quibble and it’s perhaps an odd one. The power of the emotion between the two women is absolutely clear and the role than each can play in the life of the other is certainly vivid, but what was perhaps missing for me was any sense that they just enjoyed being with each other. Apart from one flirtatious comment about Therese’s company-mandated Santa hat at their first meeting, these two never make each other laugh or share a joke. A curious omission I thought.

Not a bad start to awards season then. Let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.

So… what did I think of the Star Husbands of River Force Awakens Wars?

Posted on December 26th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


4.5 Stars
As well as snuggling down to watch Capaldi, Kingston et al on Christmas Day, I also flogged out to the BFI IMAX to watch the Force Awakens a few days earlier, so here’s your Boxing Day double-bill review. We’ll take the good Doctor first.

More than other episodes, except possibly the first few aired in 2005, Christmas Specials have to attract and entertain a wide audience. Not just the dedicated fans, but the casual viewers, the grumpy sceptics, their sleepy relatives and various other waifs and strays. Sometimes, Christmas Specials have basically ignored all other continuity and these have often been among the most effective – A Christmas Carol, Voyage of the Damned – although not always – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. Others have been bound into the fabric of the series, dealing with a new Doctor – The Christmas Invasion – a regeneration – The Time of the Doctor – or a new companion – The Snowmen. This year, Steven Moffat attempts a middle-ground. On the one hand, almost nothing that happens at least for the first 45 minutes is in any way dependent on the viewer ever having watched the series before. On the other hand, those first 45 minutes might be a wee bit confusing if you’ve literally no idea who River Song even is. The last 15 minutes… well, we’ll come to those.

This is very much an episode of two halves, or if not quite halves then certainly pieces. The first, longer, piece is hugely entertaining. A “romp” in all the best senses of the word – full of dash and wit and good will to all, with fruity performances from guest stars Matt Lucas and Greg Davies and some dazzlingly brilliant plot turns, such as the revelation that Scratch is planning on delivering the diamond to King Hydroflax as a tribute.

A lot is asked of the effects department here and they mainly deliver, cutting away from some of the more gruesome head-related activities no doubt both in the name of propriety and keeping the budget down to a manageable level. Even more than usual, the set design and dressing is absolutely gorgeous from the cheekily repurposed Trap Street to the claustrophobic surgeon’s table to the opulent decks of the ship Harmony and Redemption.

It’s when the Doctor and River leave the ship that the story starts to come off the rails slightly. Knowing the form of these things pretty well, and having thoroughly enjoyed the story so far, I had already thought to myself that what would elevate it to greatness would be a perfectly judged moment of pain, pathos or gloom. Actually, what happens is a little fuzzier than that. The clean plotting starts to fray at the edges when River and the Doctor take it in turns to pilot the TARDIS on and off the bridge of the doomed star liner, and the Doctor’s attitude to the widespread death and destruction seems uncharacteristically callous as well. Sure, there were a lot of rotters on board, but were none of them past redemption? And what about the cooks, cleaners, accountants, engineers and what-not?

It’s not like the script is fighting to pack every last detail into the remaining few seconds either. In fact, Moffat squanders the dizzying narrative momentum he’s built up and lazily coasts for the last ten minutes of the episode. It’s at this stage that we’re invited to consider the River Song flowchart in a bit more detail, and I’m not absolutely sure it makes sense. This was advertised as the first meeting between the two (from River’s point of view) and it’s implied that she’s borrowed TARDISes of earlier Doctors without them noticing. It also seems as if she recognised Tennant and Smith because she had publicity photos of them, not because she is able to sense who they truly are, regardless of what face they wear.

But she seems to have fallen prey to that old fan-trap of thinking that the twelve regeneration limit means twelve faces, when of course it actually means thirteen, so there’s no reason for her not to have a picture of Capaldi too. And then, it turns out that this is actually their penultimate meeting – next time will be the Library and then it’s all over. But, for some reason, the pain of this revelation doesn’t quite resonate. After he has targeted the correct audience with laser-like precision for most of the episode, we’re suddenly being asked to applaud the writer’s neurotic box-ticking as he reminds us of every detail of Silence in the Library. It’s a slightly limp end to an episode which spent most of its running time fizzing with invention.

Ultimately, however, the first three-quarters is so hugely enjoyable, from Capaldi’s antlers to his doing bigger on the inside “properly” to the demented Hydroflax story to the final “hello sweetie” that I can’t bring myself to knock off more than half a star.

On to The Force Awakens, which I saw at the BFI IMAX despite the best efforts of the Odeon website to prevent me from so doing. I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the Star Wars series as many of my contemporaries. A school friend took a bunch of us to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema when I was 11 and for him it was the most exciting thing in the world, but I was a bit bewildered about all the fuss. Of course, I saw the wretched prequel trilogy in the cinemas, and roundly detested every one of them, but like everyone else, I settled down with a growing sense of optimism to watch this new incarnation.

Is it any good? Well, compared to what? Obviously it can’t hope to equal, or even come close to the era-defining, cultural-warping, iconic cataclysm of the first film. But also obviously, no-one really expected it to repeat the colossal errors of judgement of the prequel trilogy either. What JJ Abrams has done, for sure, is to leave the franchise in a better state than he found it. Disney’s multi-billion dollar investment is certainly safe and the movie will probably stand up quite nicely to further viewings. But is this the work of a maverick genius, boldly reinvisioning the series and creating whole swathes of new lore? Hardly? For once, I find myself in perfect agreement with usually demented contrarian Julian Simpson who commented “It’s like someone lent JJ Abrams a priceless old Ferrari and, instead of putting his foot down and seeing what this fucker can do, he’s driven it round the block at 20mph for fear of scratching the paintwork.”

It might be worth pausing for a moment to reflect on JJ Abrams’s relationship with Stars Trek and Wars. Regardless of the necrophiliac karaoke gibberish of Into Darkness, Abrams was probably the ideal director to resurrect this ailing franchise – his TV background, obvious talent for character and action, and his success with Mission Impossible III allied with his total lack of any reverence for the Trek universe meant that he could create a new version of the series which would resonate with an audience of Trek-lovers and Trek-agnostics alike.

But Abrams loves Star Wars, grew up watching it, played with the toys, read the spin-offs and then suffered as we all did when the prequels came out. His challenge, a much greater one than he faced with Star Trek, is to recreate the series without feeling like he is treading on egg-shells.

As a movie, it works very well. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega effortlessly carry the show, with new droid BB8 a worthy successor to R2D2. The Luke Skywalker map McGuffin does its job and the action sequences, especially in the first half, work very well indeed, with the Millennium Falcon dogfight on Jakku being a particular highlight. The one truly revisionist touch – Boyega’s stormtrooper defecting from the First Order – brilliantly sets the plot in motion, even if Oscar Isaac’s rather colourless Poe Dameron is clumsily removed from the narrative simply in order to be fed back in later.

As a nostalgia-fest sequel that’s been 25 years in the making, it also works fantastically well. Harrison Ford’s reintroduction with Chewie at his side gave me a warm glow and the use of Solo and Leia’s own off-spring as the chief villain (not to mention Solo’s untimely despatch) manages to echo the original trilogy without actually duplicating it.

However, an enormous amount of the run-time is devoted to things we’ve already seen in the original three movies. Most obvious and most egregious is that substitution of the Death Star with the basically identical only much bigger, but also far more easily-defeated Starkiller Base. Then we have the familial light-saber duel, a spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Grand Old Jedi at the end of his years, etc and so forth. There’s not a lot wrong with this, but when the creative team is obviously so comfortable in the Star Wars universe, it’s a damn shame they didn’t do a bit more than just rearrange the furniture a little.

A few other quibbles – Finn’s reaction to the death around him on Jakku, conveyed brilliantly with almost no dialogue, is a wonderful motivation for his character. But he then proceeds to indiscriminately slaughter fellow stormtroopers from his initial escape onwards, with rather undermines his nobility. Captain Phasma’s wonderful name and high profile casting led me to believe that rather more would be done with her character, but in fact she gets three or four bland scenes which add nothing and Gwendoline Christie’s charisma is rather hard to spot under that chrome helmet. And if the First Order is, as the opening crawl implies, a rag-tag band of disgruntled former soldiers, why do they appear to have the full might and discipline of the former Empire?

Anyway, what we have here is a cautious new beginning, which nevertheless contains great jokes, wonderful action sequences, splendid new characters, welcome cameos from the old guard (and some unnecessary ones – I’m looking at you Anthony Daniels) and the hint of a new mythos which just might keep the franchise running for the next 25 years. It’s a very good job, if not quite the bold triumph it might have been.

Happy Christmas everyone!