Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.

Oscars 2017: Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge

Posted on February 14th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Three more movies to add to my tally. Minor spoilers throughout – you have been warned.

Manchester by the Sea

Writer director Kenneth Lonergan was not someone whose work I was very familiar with. I’d seen Gangs of New York, but that seems like writer-for-hire stuff, owing much more to Scorsese’s vision that Lonergan’s. I haven’t seen You Can Count on Me or Margaret – but on the other hand, I have seen a fair number of Boston Male Angst movies, generally starring whichever Afflecks are nearest to hand, or Matt Damon if wet (here Damon produces and Casey stars).

Initially, Manchester is a slow burn. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler operates according to the cast-iron law of movie heroes that the audience will always like you, no matter how grievous your crimes or appalling your character flaws, if you are good at your job. So, he can’t keep a civil tongue in his head while doing odd jobs in dilapidated apartment blocks, but he knows one end of a wrench from another and he’s a hard worker.

Then he’s summoned to his hometown, narrowly missing the death of his father, and needing to break the news to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When his brother’s will names him as the boy’s guardian, Affleck will do anything to avoid staying in Manchester by the Sea.

So far, so Hallmark. Just imagine the TV movie version of this story, where ill-matched handyman and teenage tearaway discover that despite their early clashes, actually they both need each other. Ugh. But Lonergan’s handling of the material is far more subtle, restrained and powerful. Of particular note is the flashback structure. Ultimately, we come to realise that the problem is not the sudden and unexpected burden of quasi-parenthood, nor is Affleck’s refusal to relocate sheer stubbornness. The whole town is full of ghosts, and some of the memories unearthed by his visit are truly ghastly.

So, the film nips back and forth along the timeline, but – emphasising that at any moment the lead character can be confronted with another grim reminder of horrendous past decisions – there is no visual distinction between then and now, nor any overt cue that a flashback has begun or ended. This makes for an initially confusing watch, but once I got used to the rhythms of Jennifer Lame’s editing, and once the jigsaw started to come together, everything made perfect sense.

That freed me to admire the crystal clear digital photography by Jody Lee Lipes, making the every-present cold feel absolutely real. And the powerhouse performances from Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams doing a great deal with not very much as Affleck’s ex-wife. And there are flashes of humour too – notably a lovely cameo from Matthew Broderick of all people, as well as Hedges’ endless quest to bed either or both of his girlfriends.

So, if the scope of the movie is not terribly broad, then the depth of the writing and the acting largely makes up for it, and although this isn’t a movie to watch and re-watch, it’s certainly a moving and effective piece of work.

Lion

Lion similarly doesn’t try to encompass anything more than the plight of a handful of people in a peculiar situation, but also like Manchester, on the whole it succeeds very well. Considering the pitch – Saroo, adopted by a white Australian family when he was only six years old, in his early adult life suddenly needs to reconnect with his origins in India and risks alienating his adoptive family – it would seem “obvious” to begin with marquee names Dev Patel (Saroo) and Nicole Kidman (his adoptive mother) and have the audience feel Saroo’s confusion and anguish along with him.

In fact, about the first hour of the movie concerns Saroo’s early life in India. We meet his brother, mother and sister and see exactly how he came to be separated from them, thousands of miles away from home, unable even to speak the local language. This whole section of the film works brilliantly, and the terrible details of his accidental removal from everything he knows are worked out with remorseless precision.

Sunny Pawar is astonishing as the young Saroo. Shot after shot depicts him furiously running away from some kind of danger, like a pint-sized Tom Cruise (insert your own joke here), tiny fists pumping, fierce little face set in grim determination. When he evades what were probably people traffickers and ends up at an orphanage, the tension ebbs out of the film a little, but the details of his arrival in Australia are some of the most affecting sequences. Kidman, barely on screen for more than twenty minutes, seizes every opportunity she is given, and her quiet outpouring of love for the little boy in her bathtub, who can’t yet speak her language, is incredibly moving.

Dev Patel – suddenly brawny, rangy and hairy, quite unlike the powerlessly slight figure he cuts for much of Slumdog Millionaire – also does well as the grown-up Saroo, and the early scenes of him trying to figure out just what had happened to him all those years ago are effective, but here’s where it becomes clear why this movie needed that long first act. There isn’t really enough story to keep the momentum going after Saroo makes his decision to try and Google Earth his way back to his origins.

Rooney Mara is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, largely because he’s not letting her in on what he’s trying to do. And the damage done to his relationship with his Australian family is undermined because the filmmakers – somewhat letting the truth get in the way of a good story – have included his brother Guddu, adopted a year or so after Saroo. Guddu’s mental health problems already mean that his family unit is under stress, and the film can’t make up its mind whether Saroo trusts or resents Guddu, so this portion of the movie represents a significant dog-leg, effectively marking time until Saroo can be permitted to solve the puzzle of his beginnings.

When – finally! – Saroo makes it to India, the film pulls out of the dive and really delivers a cathartic ending, emphasised by photos and video of the real Saroo, Sue Brierley and others, and with an absolutely brilliant title card punchline. It’s tremendously emotional stuff, handled beautifully by director Garth Davis, making his feature debut.

Not quite as complete as Manchester by the Sea, then, but still well worth seeing, especially for the opening hour.

Hacksaw Ridge

I don’t really like war movies.

Of course, there are exceptions – Saving Private Ryan (mainly for the Omaha Beach scene), Paths of Glory (absolutely devastating) and, er, does Casablanca count?

But, by and large, tales of heroism behind enemy lines, brilliant military stratagems dreamed-up by inspired generals, or the bonding of boy soldiers who should never have been sent to the front lines, all leave me cold. And the wave of seventies and eighties Vietnam films similarly left me unstirred. No thank you Platoon, I’ll leave after the Russian Roulette scene The Deer Hunter, you’re not doing it for me most of Full Metal Jacket, enough already Casualties of War.

So, maybe I was never going to like Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who nevertheless signs up to serve as a combat medic in World War II and ends up saving the lives of dozens of men on the titular ridge at Okinawa. But honestly, Mel Gibson’s film is a total mess, tonally incoherent, riddled with inconsistencies, and clearly glorifying the very violence that its hero is so determinedly opposed to.

The first act of the film, sketching in Doss’s home life in Virginia, is pretty corny movie-of-the-week stuff. We begin with a very clumsy flash-forward, flash-back, flash-forward opening, seemingly designed to ensure that nobody expecting a military bloodbath panics that they’ve walked through the wrong door, while scooping up a supposedly key childhood incident which is never picked up on again (a later incident is drafted-in where this one presumably was meant to go). Then we follow Doss’s journey from somewhat misfitting youngster to eager recruit.

But Gibson keeps emphasising all the wrong things. He can’t even shoot Doss and his new girlfriend (the preternaturally beautiful Teresa Palmer) having their first kiss without trying to have them both killed in road traffic accidents. And it’s absolutely baffling when his dad (Hugo Weaving, wasted) tells him that his problem has always been that he has to ponder and pray on every little decision before acting – since up till now all we have seen is him being headstrong to the point of reckless. Later, in the training scenes, he will be resolute and steadfast and in the extended climax in Okinawa he will be decisive and focused. This ponderous indecision is simply not a part of his character. It’s almost as if the script was assembled from multiple drafts by choosing pages at random.

In the middle section, every cliché of the Army Boot Camp is wheeled out. The men are giving amusing quirks and cheeky nicknames so that we can keep them straight when they start getting sliced up by Japanese bullets (this doesn’t work). And Vince Vaughan of all people essays a hugely uninteresting take on the shouty drill sergeant who really only wants the best for his men.

But the conflict between a conscientious objector, who refuses to even touch a rifle but who nevertheless wants to join the Army to serve as a medic on the front lines, should make for a fascinating battle-of-wills – even if presented with these over-familiar tropes. But again, the key scenes evade Gibson’s camera. Doss repeatedly asserts that he was told by the recruiting officers that he would not have to handle firearms, but since we didn’t see this scene, we have no way of knowing whether or in what manner this undertaking was given. So rather than seeing him as a wronged man, a pawn mislead by the great machine of war, it’s tempting to see him as just naive or worse a simpleton not worth rooting for.

In the end, the stage is set for a court martial, but once again this is handed in the most clichéd way imaginable, with a “hail Mary” piece of key evidence arriving at the eleventh hour causing all charges to be immediately dropped with smiles and handshakes all round. For all I know, this is exactly the war things happened (although I doubt it) but events are presented with zero verisimilitude.

Act Three is the main event, Hacksaw Ridge itself. Take the ridge, you take the city. Take the city, you take the country and win the war. But the dastardly Japs have claimed many brave American lives already and this won’t be easy. It’s tempting to compare the gruesome battle scenes which follow to Spielberg’s handling of the Normandy Beaches in Saving Private Ryan, but while Gibson’s film handily exceeds the Tom Hanks movie for viscera, brutality and ghastly sound effects, it totally lacks Spielberg’s perfect balance between the fog of war and the demands of narrative clarity. Spielberg’s sequence is precision storytelling. Gibson’s version is a blood-spattered roller coaster.

When the American forces are cut to pieces and have no option but to retreat, brave Private Doss drags the wounded to safety and lowers them off the ridge. This selfless act of heroism is entirely true and it’s with genuine humility and shame that I watch my soft hands type these words. What that man did on that ridge is absolutely remarkable, but the film which was intended to honour his noble deeds continues to lose its footing in these crucial moments.

Firstly, as noted, Gibson succumbs to the temptation to make the battle scenes thrilling, which means that the film fails utterly as a parable about the horrors of war (should that point need making again). Secondly, the moral complexity of Doss’s position is completely overlooked. War is presented as a necessary tool to achieve global stability and the mission of the American forces is one of truth and rightness. When Doss drags Vaughan on a makeshift sled while the other man sprays bullets from a submachine gun behind him, we’re supposedly meant to punch their air, or cheer or something. I just thought this was a ridiculous spectacle belonging to nonsense like The Fast and the Furious, not a serious Oscar-winning movie confronting the realities of warfar.

In big ways and small, Gibson presents the Americans as all-too flesh and blood humans, whose lives would be deeply mourned if they were lost. But the Japanese are presented as boogie-men who exist only to imperil the lives of Our Brave Heroes.

This can be seen not only in their stereotypical presentation (when they are finally defeated, they even commit hari-kiri) but in more subtle ways as well. None of what they say is subtitled. Their faces are almost never clearly seen. Sometimes their whole bodies are obscured by smoke, but even when they emerge from the mists, the lighting and grading conspires to hide their eyes, or mute their features completely. They are alien, separate, other, killable. Doss does lower a couple of Japanese wounded off the ridge, but we never see them and we are later told they “didn’t make it” leaving open the question of whether or not American surgeons would have operated on them or not.

And the muddled writing hasn’t gone away either. Holed up for the night, Captain Glover marvels at Doss’s continued refusal to handle firearms. “Any sane man would want a rifle,” he exclaims. Doss quips in return “Well, I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough, except that an hour earlier, I watched this same Captain Glover attempt to drum Doss out of his platoon on the grounds of insanity, in response to which Doss very cogently argued for his sanity, and this was the conclusion reached by the psychiatrist assessing him who then made his report back to – you guessed it – Captain Glover. Again, I can only assumed no-one was paying attention to which draft was being shot today.

Andrew Garfield, seemingly channelling Tom Hanks not as Captain Miller but as Forrest Gump, does well enough with what he’s given, but even he and a parade of talented Australian character actors, can save this nasty jingoistic propaganda piece from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Five down, four to go.

Oscars 2017 – and La La Land

Posted on February 7th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

At the time of writing, I’ve seen four out of nine of the nominees. Here’s a quick assessment of the runners and the riders, and then I’ll post some more reviews.

Arrival: Cerebral science fiction with a cracking central performance from Amy Adams but zero chance of winning the main prize. Longer review here.

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in 1950s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is also up for Best Supporting Actress. Well-reviewed but not getting the kind of buzz it needs to win.

Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson directs a number of other Aussies in a World War II movie based on a true story. Again, well reviewed but not really a contender.

Hell or High Water: Clint Eastwood directs and Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine star in the Western crime thriller which completely passed me by on its initial release, but which I’m hoping to find at an art cinema somewhere before resorting to iTunes.

Hidden Figures: Second true story on the list, this time that of the social and racial issues surrounding the largely unsung women of colour working on the maths behind the moon landing. Not a front-runner but I wouldn’t right it off completely, especially after its cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

La La Land: Festooned with awards, this is Damien Chazelle’s bubblegum follow-up to his brilliant debut Whiplash. By any measure, the one to beat.

Lion: Third true story, this time a family drama focusing on adoptive Australian Dev Patel’s quest to rediscover his Indian heritage with attendant social and racial issues.

Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck leads a very strong cast in this family drama which also explores social issues in contemporary Boston. Kenneth Lonergan’s film represents the best that the La La Land haters can hope for.

Moonlight: But don’t write-off Moonlight either. Mahershali Ali is the most recognisable face in this unstarry cast assembled to essay this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in contemporary Miama.

So, this is very much a list of two halves. Four films which represent adventure and derring-do of one sort or another. Four films which represent smaller more personal stories, including as noted, explorations of social and racial issues.

And then there’s La La Land.

Okay, let’s start with Damien Chazelle’s film taken purely on its own merits. I’m a sucker for Hollywood musicals and I regard the current TV trend towards musical numbers as a very positive and happy thing. I thought Whiplash was a fascinating and largely excellent piece of work, and I was absolutely ready to be charmed by the follow-up – and by-and-large I was.

The opening number is delightful and the leads are sketched in efficiently and playfully, with just enough time-jumping shenanigans to keep me on my toes, but not so much that it becomes distracting and show-offy. I don’t find Seb’s passion for jazz or his need to explain it to others offensive or insufferable, and I can forgive the occasionally iffy singing, especially when the dancing is largely very successful. And I defy anyone to not leave the movie humming Justin Hurwitz’s music.

For the most part, the tone is very carefully balanced – just enough sweetness and naiveté to sustain the confection of the musical genre; just enough real-life cynicism and acid to make it play in 2017. And the two leads do tremendous work. Chazelle repeatedly frames Emma Stone’s preternaturally expressive face very close-to and just lets his camera absorb the play of emotions across her features. And if Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly giving Winona Ryder a run for his money, then when the camera rests on his far more stoic physiognomy, there’s always something going on behind the eyes.

There are quibbles. When both parties get everything they dreamed-of, the details don’t entirely hang together, nor does the cost (they have to give up on each other) quite counter-balance the sugariness of Cinderella twist. And their parting is a little too comfortable and mature for their not-quite-reunion to have the kind of bittersweet tang that it really needed. But overall this is a perfectly inoffensive and rather winning piece of film-making, which shows that Whiplash was no fluke and that Chazelle is a singular artist whose career will be well worth watching.

But is it one of the top ten best films of the year? Well, that seems a bit of a stretch, even given that the Best Picture nominees frequently contain works of hugely varying quality. For it to have received more Oscar nominations than any other film this year seems very surprising. And for it to have equalled the record for the most nominations of any film ever is nothing short of ludicrous. With so many true life stories, so many intimate family dramas and so many explorations of social issues to choose from, faced with a world which seems to be rapidly heading towards a Twitter-fuelled Armageddon, the Academy appears to have voted for pure, flimsy, gossamer escapism.

Frankly, who can blame them?

Culture round-up early 2017

Posted on February 1st, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, for some time now, my new role as podcast producer has made updating this blog very difficult, and in the light of the ghastly developments in UK and world politics, my half-assed views on TV shows and movie seem hardly relevant. But the world keeps turning and since I’ve been to see a few movies and things, I may as well try and keep up my record.

So, let’s start with the Doctor Who Christmas Special. One reason for my not reviewing this at the time is that it was basically fine. Nothing terribly wrong, but nothing terribly exciting either. As writer, Steven Moffat reigned in most of his worst excesses, Ed Bazalgette frames it all with professionalism and style, real (north) American Justin Chatwin and faux American Charity Wakefield are both convincing and Matt Lucas was far less irritating than we might have feared.

Even the one big error simply duplicates a mistake made in pretty much every superhero movie ever shot, which is the physics-defying fantasy of magic catching hands. A person falling off a building will hit the floor and be made to stop very suddenly, and the impact will cause them severe damage. The kinetic energy they give up when their acceleration towards the ground suddenly ceases has to go somewhere. However, in superhero movies and in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, no such problem exists if the thing which the falling person (or object) collides with is a person’s hands. When Grant catches the ship, it stops just as suddenly as if it had hit the ground, but mysteriously with no damage to Grant, the ship or any of its occupants. Other than that, absolutely fine. Four stars.

Next let’s turn to Arrival, the cerebral science-fiction slow-burn movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Dennis Villeneuve which depicts the international response to a number of alien obelisks which descend without warning on planet Earth. Putting so much emphasis on Adams’ painstaking attempts to decipher the alien language is undoubtedly gutsy and for me in pays off handsomely, drawing me in to the puzzle as the various military powers across the globe get increasingly twitchy.

The central twist is a little over-familiar for those of us who have seen more than half-a-dozen science fiction films, but it’s artfully concealed and bolstered by excellent performances, from a luminous Adams on down. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which more later.

And finally, let’s tick off Rogue One. I’m not really a devoted Star Wars nerd, which meant that the number of “Easter Eggs” I noticed was not excessive, although I gather that they come at the rate of about two a minute if you really know your Force from your elbow. The tactic of alternating “saga” movies (like The Force Awakens) with “anthology” movies seems like a smart one and by inserting a narrative into the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope seems like an excellent way to start things off.

And so, this is not quite the Star Wars we’re familiar with. No opening crawl! No John Williams! No wipes! On-screen captions to identify the planets we’re visiting. And early on, it’s all a bit clunky, as we whip from planet-to-planet in search of the film’s plot. As the characters start to establish themselves, and the humour and adventure comes to the fore, things begin to improve, and the team assembled around Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso all get some great moments, especially Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed droid K-2SO, even if Jones herself can’t quite match up to the astonishing Daisy Ridley.

But the narrative momentum isn’t sustained, as the plot ties itself in knots to prevent us from getting to the last act too soon. I swear when they meet up with Jyn’s father, I can actually hear two different drafts of the film fighting each other, as the person Jyn trusted to deliver her to her father, whose message the rest of the film depends on her hearing, has a crisis of confidence and decides not to betray her by killing him anyway. Badguy Krennic then kills all of his men but not him and then rebel bombers blow him up anyway! Not exactly a clean narrative line!

In the final mission to get the plans out of the Imperial base, however, things improve enormously as director Gareth Edwards manages not just to summon up the spirit of the original trilogy, but to finally give his movie the singularity of purpose it seemed to struggle for earlier. And I have to admire both the commitment to the reality of the suicide mission and the neat plugging of the original film’s most glaring plot hole.

Everyone seems to have their own opinion about the digital Cushing and Fisher avatars which appear throughout the movie. For me, the brief glimpse of digital Leia worked fine. But the continual featuring of the CGI Tarkin stretched the envelope well-past breaking point. The dead eyes and weird mouth and imperfect vocal impression were a constant distraction and I was left with an appreciation of just how wide and featureless the uncanny valley truly is.

A full round-up of the 2017 Oscars will be here soon.

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.

UPDATED TO ADD

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 »

room

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…