So… what did I think of Peter Capaldi?

Posted on September 1st, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

deep breath

In all the general delight that Doctor Who is back (yay!) after eight months off our screens (boo!) and that we are getting an unbroken run of episodes this year (yay!) and in the atmospheric autumn months to boot (yay! yay! yay!), it seems to have gone unremarked upon that we are only getting 12 episodes plus the Christmas special instead of the hither-to traditional 13. Perhaps the sprawling 80 minute run-time of the season opener is to blame? If so, I’m not convinced that it’s a good trade-off.

New Doctor stories break into roughly two types. The first, largely out-of-favour now, shakes the Doc up a bit for the first 20 minutes or so and then plunges him in to an adventure which becomes the real point of the story. See Power of the Daleks, Robot and, if it counts, Rose. The other type makes the Doctor’s regeneration and new persona the main point of the story and although there generally is a threat which must be overcome, it’s usually a fairly minor one. See Spearhead from Space, Castrovalva and The Christmas Invasion. In these stories, the Doctor is off-stage, usually incapacitated, for part of the story, and much of the action deals with the consequences of this violent alteration of his body and mind.

Ever eager to have his intricately decorated cake and greedily devour it too, Steven Moffat has inevitably tried to use the extra running time to do both here, and the result is an episode full of marvellous moments, but with some very strange pacing and a couple of choices that seem rather too forced.

I noted around the time of Tennant’s departure the two very different positions adopted by the outgoing and incoming show-runners. “This is a death. The Tenth Doctor will die,” intoned Russell T Davies as he prepared to clear out his desk. “He’s the same man,” reassured Steven Moffat as he tried Rusty’s boots on for size. Now it’s Moffat’s turn to execute a Doctor and he’s no longer prepared to show the process as consequence free.

Capaldi makes an instant first impression, although he’s given fairly generic Moffat-Doctor stuff at first, when he isn’t being given fairly generic post-regenerative-Doctor stuff. There are some lovely one liners in the mix though, especially the bit about the Doctor taking micro-naps while other people are talking. While learning his lines, Jon Pertwee used to rip out all the pages which didn’t feature the Doctor. On occasion he’d wander into the rehearsal room grumbling “very thin script this week.” Once he decides to leave via the window rather than the door, the character starts to snap into focus. It’s around this time that the main science-fiction mystery plot starts to take over, but it’s also remarkable – almost profligate – that the story is willing to introduce a fully-grown tyrannosaurus rex stomping across Victorian London and then toss it aside as a mere curtain-raiser for the supposedly more interesting tale of alien impersonators. Terror of the Zygons didn’t have Moffat’s budget but at least Robert Banks Stewart had the sense to do those things the other way round.

But the middle part of the episode is largely unconcerned with threats sauropodian or other-wordly. Instead we tackle the question above head-on – is this the same man? Clara’s scene with Madame Vastra and her veil is an arresting, confronting and beautifully written answer to this question, serving both to give fans a new take on what regeneration is as well as gently reassuring the little ones that it’s okay to miss Matt Smith and give this new bloke with the scary eyebrows a chance.

The only thing which spoils this scene is that of all the companions the Doctor has ever had, it’s this one who gets to play this scene. Clara the Impossible Girl who has helped the Doctor in every regeneration he has ever had. Clara, who only two stories ago was hanging out with not two but three Doctors and seemed perfectly happy that they were all the same man. Clara who watched the regeneration happen before her eyes, and told the Paternoster Gang in no uncertain times who this wild Caledonian really was. It’s a nice scene, but it’s absolutely impossible to fit it into Clara’s character development so far.

On which subject, there follows another very nice scene in which the Doctor and Clara meet in that weird restaurant. “Game-playing narcissist” is a pretty odd description of the Doctor. “Game-playing” possibly describes the fourth Doctor, certainly the seventh, but “narcissist” sounds totally wrong. And just what has Clara ever done which earns her either of those titles? Clara still has yet to make any characterisation beyond the incomprehensible Impossible Girl nonsense and Jenna Coleman’s winning smile. But it is a nice scene.

Once the main sci-fi plot takes over, the pacing smoothes out and the threat is vanquished in a suitably satisfying manner, with just two little wrinkles. How striking, how fascinating, in an episode devoted to telling us who this new Doctor is, to end the adventure on such a profound note of ambiguity. Both outcomes seem profoundly unlikely – that the Doctor bodily ejected his clockwork nemesis or that such a single-minded automaton elected to terminate himself. I almost don’t want to know the answer – for once the question might actually be more interesting.

What did give me pause is the very final scene with the first appearance of Michelle Gomez as “Missy” who appears to run a version of heaven populated only by people who have died at the Doctor’s hands. This evidently is our season-runner and so far I’m dubious as to its worth.

I’d rather have had that than the very peculiar and unnecessary Matt Smith cameo. Everything was wrong about this. Just when we’d begun to accept Capaldi, his predecessor shows up, bringing back all those tedious memories. The kids who were so subtly reassured earlier now have the message rammed down their throats and the whole thing smacks of “we can so let’s not ask if we should.”

But I’m sounding awfully grumbly about an episode I did like a lot. Ben Wheatley directs with atmosphere and class, the Paternoster Gang are huge fun as ever, Capaldi nails it right from the off and the new TARDIS and titles are lovely, even if the theme music is a bit Dominic Glynn. 3½ stars sounds about right. A promising beginning.

into the dalek

So, let’s go on to what should be an easier job – Capaldi’s second story. There’s not so much to say about this one – Fantastic Voyage inside a Dalek. This aims pretty low – a rollicking adventure with a thin veneer of moral philosophy – but it hits the bullseye pretty much every time. Twelve’s rescue of Journey Blue and his disregard for the fate of Ross are particularly striking. Some of this is by-the-numbers – she’s a soldier but she’s got a conscience (yawn) – some of it feels a bit over-familiar – a lot is cribbed from the end of Dalek, and visually its reminiscent of the Battle of Canary Wharf – but it’s fast-moving, funny, exciting and novel enough to be a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes of television. Hardly likely to go down as a cast-iron classic but the kind of high-quality work-a-day story which the production team needs to be able to crank out.

The joint writing credit for Phil Ford and Moffat is interesting too. Is Moffat scaling back or is he doing RTD style rewrites now but taking a bigger credit for them? Only Ford was taking the credit on Doctor Who Extra in any case. I can’t quite bring myself to give a shit about Danny Pink, but I daresay he’ll be given something interesting to do at some point.

So, I’m optimistic at the moment. We haven’t managed a complete break with the past (I really don’t care who that woman in The Bells of St John was) but we’ve so far avoided the tangled continuity webs and nonsensical plotting of Time and Day of the Doctor and Capaldi is marvellous in the part. Four stars for Into the Dalek and away we go…

Too absurd to be true

Posted on July 9th, 2014 in Skepticism | No Comments »

Conspiracy theories regarding 9-11 never fail to get my sceptical antennae twitching, and I was particularly appalled at a recent spate of Facebook posts claiming that the supposed victims on board the doomed planes were actually alive and well and living in secret on a government pension. Fair enough for the armchair engineer to claim that the Twin Towers fell this way or that, but what on earth are the families of the dead passengers supposed to feel when they read this kind of nonsense? The clodhopping insensitivity of it is far worse than the stupidity and implausibility of the claims being made.

The claim that the planes were actually missiles (or holograms!?) is fairly clearly absurd on its face, contradicted as it is by such a vast array of video evidence. However, a more common and seemingly more reasonable claim is that the planes did hit the towers, but their eventual collapse was the result of a controlled demolition. On his Neurologica blog, senior sceptic Steve Novella invited one Michael Fullerton to debate the issue. You can read the back-and-forth here but it seems to me that Michael’s whole argument boils down to “I know the Twin Towers fell as a result of a controlled demolition because it kinda-sorta looks like that.” And in both his posts, Steve Novella did an excellent job at seeing past the hand-waving and name-calling and long-word-using to show the emptiness of this claim, while walking us through the basic physics of the situation with admirable clarity,

I posted a comment on the blog explaining that that you don’t even have to bother looking at the physics of the situation to know that the assertion that the Twin Towers fell due to a controlled demolition is absurd, if not actually insane. Anyone who wants to show that this is the case has some very, very hard questions to answer before they even begin to look at the physics involved. Here’s the rest of that comment in full…

Controlled demolition requires explosives – in the case of a building the size of the Twin Towers, massive quantities of explosives, in all likelihood hundreds of pounds. We are not talking about one guy smuggling a briefcase past security, we are talking multiple individuals making multiple undetected trips into and out of the World Trade Center carrying not just explosives but detonators, wiring and other paraphernalia. There is simply no plausible way in which that quantity of explosives could have been smuggled covertly into the buildings, and no evidence that they in fact were. Among the variety of conspirators, deceased and living, on American soil and overseas, none has been identified as playing this role. Nor was any evidence of explosives found in the wreckage. And in all the documents we have regarding the planning of the 9-11 attacks, there is no mention of explosives. Hard question one: exactly how and by whom and when were the explosives introduced?

Some might argue that given the planes and the burning jet fuel had already weakened the structure, less explosives would be required than if the planes had not struck, but this is a slippery slope to giving up the whole game. Once the stalwart Conspiracy Theorist has admitted that collision from a jet plane followed by raging fires burning for many minutes might weaken a building’s integrity, we have to start doing Hard Sums to figure out just how much it might be weakened, and as Steve has shown, the Hard Sums are not in the Conspiracy Theorist’s favour. But, as I say, we don’t need Hard Sums to dismiss this argument.

Even given that explosives could somehow have been introduced into the buildings – hard question two: why the need for a controlled demolition? You are already crashing fully-laden jet airliners into the buildings, which is bound to cause a tremendous amount of damage and loss of life. Why should it be an essential part of the plan to cause those towers to definitely collapse utterly? Remember, that until the planes are minutes away from the World Trade Center, no-one in power will have the slightest clue what the target is. As a terrorist attack it is chillingly perfect, unstoppable. As opposed to spending weeks carefully smuggling explosives into the building, which as soon as they are found, the entire game is up. Why risk the whole operation in that way?

But given that it is a fundamental part of the attack, for reasons unknown, to have the buildings not merely damaged beyond all likely repair but actually razed to the ground, why was the same approach not taken with the other two targets – the Pentagon, which suffered damage only at the impact site, and the Capitol building which was thought to be the target of the fourth plane? Neither of these exploded an hour or two later. Hard question three: why take one approach with one major American landmark and not take the same approach with either of the others?

But, okay, let us grant that for these particularly demented terrorists, and/or their Shadowy Government Overlords, it is tremendously important that the Twin Towers be razed to the ground, and entirely unimportant that the Pentagon and the Capitol building be destroyed completely – it is sufficient to merely damage those. And let us grant once again that our terrorists have the means as well as the desire to covertly introduce, install and detonate at will the prodigious quantity of explosives needed to topple two of the largest buildings on earth in a controlled demolition.

Hard question four: why bother with the planes? As noted, laboriously introducing package after package of explosives risks discovery far more, but if you already have the power to carry out such an operation, likely over several weeks, you now have the power to suddenly and terrifyingly wipe two buildings off the face of the earth. Why do you now bother attempting to hijack a couple of planes? At the very least, why not send them off to two further targets?

Okay, okay, okay. Let us grant – and I’m not sure who still would at this point, but here we go anyway – that our terrorists absolutely must raze the Twin Towers to the ground (but not any other targets); this is such an important part of the plan that they have risked everything to ensure it will happen, and they also have the means to covertly introduce hundreds of pounds of explosive, accurately position it, and detonate it at will; and that it seems sensible to take effectively a belt-and-braces approach by first crashing a plane in to each building, and then setting off their explosives an hour or so later.

Hard question five: why the delay? The purpose of a terrorist attack is to spread terror, to kill innocents and to make the government seem powerless. In the time which elapsed between the planes hitting and the buildings falling, many, many people were evacuated from the buildings and taken to safety. If the explosives had detonated immediately the planes had hit, the result would have been no less spectacular and far more fatal.

Ah, but that might reveal the presence of the explosives. While those who obediently swallow the Official Story might be fooled by the towers collapsing after the fires had raged for an hour, they surely will detect the presence of explosives if the towers fall as soon as the planes hit?

Which brings us to the hardest hard question. Hard question six: why continue to keep the explosives secret? Why on earth would Al Quaeda not be boasting about the bombs? How can it possibly ever, ever, ever advance their cause in any way at all to have secret bombs inside the World Trade Center? Even if the terrorists are acting in cahoots with the government (or secret world government or whomever) pinning the bombs on the terrorists makes their terror even more terrible, whereas keeping the bombs secret achieves nothing whatsoever.

I know that the Twin Towers did not fall due to a controlled explosion because the very idea makes no sense on any level. Adding secret bombs complicates the plan, makes it far more likely to be uncovered, is not necessary, requires a mysterious unmotivated pause in the day’s action and would have been acknowledged by the terrorists, or pinned on them by the government.

That the physics and the video evidence also supports this is welcome, but unnecessary.

Overt planes but secret bombs. For fuck’s sake.

The Curry Secret

Posted on June 6th, 2014 in recipes | No Comments »

In what seems like a previous life, when I was just getting to grips with cooking for myself, not long out of university, I picked up a copy of Kris Dhillon’s The Curry Secret. The premise of this book is as follows (I paraphrase). British people like going to Indian restaurants. British home cooks like the idea of cooking Indian food at home, but a recipe book describing Indian dishes will almost certainly be describing what an Indian housewife would cook, which is not at all like what a British Indian restaurant serves. Dhillon’s book tells you how to cook British Indian Restaurant Food at home.

The key recipe in the book is Curry Sauce. Once you have a batch of this made, you can whip up an curry you like. Chicken curry? Chicken + Curry Sauce. Lamb vindaloo? Lamb + Curry Sauce + chili + potatoes. Prawn korma? Prawns + Curry sauce + almonds + cream. And so on. The curry sauce recipe is a bit daunting and it doesn’t look at all appetising until the very final stage. Decades after I bought the book, I’ve gone through the whole process and documented it for you. Quantities are deliberately vague to encourage you to buy the book.

Step 1. Cut up a shit-ton of onions.

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Step 2: Cut up a load of ginger and garlic.

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Step 3: Blend the ginger and garlic together with some water.

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Step 4: Simmer the ginger, garlic and onion with more water and some salt for a long-ass time.

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Step 5: After it has cooled, blend the simmered onion mixture. Reserve some of the sauce at this stage to cook the chicken in later.

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Step 6: Blend up a can of tomatoes.

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Step 7: Briefly fry tomato puree, turmeric and paprika then add the blended tomatoes and simmer.

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Step 8: Add the onion mixture. Keep simmering and skim off the froth which rises to the surface every so often. Ugh.

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Step 9: Your curry sauce is now ready. You may now prepare the chicken. Cut that sucker up into bite-sized pieces.

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Step 10: Fry the reserved curry sauce with some turmeric until it darkens in colour.

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Step 11: Add the chicken and cook throughly.

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Step 12: Both curry sauce and chicken can be put in the fridge at this stage. After several hours, we are now 20 minutes away from curry o’clock.

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Step 13: I made Chicken Dopiaza. Slice onions and fry ‘em up.

Step 14: Add curry sauce, salt, chilli powder and chicken.

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Step 15: Cook until sauce thickens. Stir in more spices.

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Step 16: Serve with basmati rice and sprinkled with coriander.

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The result was very authentic and absolutely delicious. Worth the time and effort? Ah, well that’s another matter.

Sundance 2014

Posted on May 8th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Deborah and I spent the weekend at Sundance watching five films and seeing four panels in three days. No, we didn’t go to Utah – for the last few years Sundance has come to the bizarre environs of the O2 so we were able to catch the latest in independent film without leaving London. I won’t go through the panels, except occasionally if they’re relevant, because panels are one-offs, but here are the movies we saw.

Obvious Child (wd. Gillian Robsepierre. Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman)

Our first film is so indie it almost hurts. A simple, unambitious tale of a newly-single stand-up comedian (Slate, familiar from Parks and Recreation) flailing around through something approximating adult life. Wistfully amusing, rather than laugh out loud funny with fun cameos from the likes of Richard Kind and David Cross, the main plot when it emerges might shock America’s conservative heartland but seems unremarkable in liberal London Town. The same goes for Slate’s “earthy humour” (i.e. fart jokes). Obvious Child works but aims fairly low, which I suppose is better than wildly overreaching but it made for a rather low-key start to the Sundance experience.

The Case Against 8 (d. Ben Cotner, Ryan White)

After panels about film music and “finding your story” we were back in the cinema for what was the undoubted highlight of the whole Sundance experience. When Californian voters passed “Proposition 8”, overturning the state’s recent commitment to gay marriage, young filmmakers Cotner and White followed the legal proceedings instigated by the American Federation for Equal Rights. For over four years, through endless appeals, the legal process ground on and Cotner and White’s extraordinary access documents the whole thing. Elegantly streamlined to a sub-two hour running time, the whole film is expertly judged, full of humour, insight, emotion and brilliant storytelling. A fascinating account of a vital human rights battle which deserves the biggest possible audience.

Hits (wd. David Cross. Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Meredith Hagner)

Things took an immediate turn for the worse later on Saturday night. Hits is the directorial debut of Arrested Development’s David Cross and it bears all the hallmarks of a sketch comedy writer and actor trying to tackle a full-length narrative for the first time. Hits is beset with problems, from the tonal to the structural. The story of a young woman who lusts for talent-show fame, it cannot find a focus, immediately shifting point-of-view to whomever happens to be in the frame, with the result that no coherent narrative emerges. Rather, it feels as if five different films are fighting for dominance. Compounding the problems, the satire is years if not decades old, and piss-weak, with an extra dose of supposed shock-value at the end doing nothing to pep the film up. But these weakness might have been overcome were it not for the fact that writer-director Cross so evidently loathes and despises all of the characters, from the bitchy local official to the idiot racist dad to the self-obsessed hipsters. In his panel with David Wain (read on), Cross earnestly told the audience that he took jokes out of the script to protect the story. In my view, the story wasn’t worth preserving, even if it had been structured with more discipline. A welter of funny jokes might have been a saving grace, but we are denied even that. Awful. Avoid.

The One I Love (w. Justin Lader, d. Charlie McDowell. Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson)

The best fiction film we saw, this nifty drama sees Mad Men’s Moss and husband Duplass bundled off to a weekend retreat for couples in need of reconnecting. Once there, they… man, this film is hard to describe fairly. Let’s just say that some weird shit goes down and leave it at that, shall we? The film expertly judges the tone, presenting the aforementioned weird shit simply and effectively and mining the premise carefully and satisfyingly, while the two leads tackle the often difficult material with grace and style. Only in the last ten minutes, when the filmmakers become a little too interested in the mechanism of the premise does the movie even threaten to go off the rails, but by that time I had had too good a time to care much. I will be fascinated to see how this one is marketed and how well it does at the box office, but if it comes to a screen near you, I urge you to go and see it while reading as little about it as you possibly can.

They Came Together (w David Wain, Michael Showalter; d. Wain. Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler)

Significantly less ghastly than Hits, this was still a disappointment. A spoof romantic comedy, this isn’t quite the all-out joke-fest of Airplane and it’s ilk, but it’s far too broad to be genuinely romantic in the way that Scream was genuinely scary. Good jokes (Poehler and Rudd frolick in autumn leaves, oblivious to the mouldering corpse buried just under them) sit next to poor jokes (Poehler’s approach to running her candy store is just to give all the candy away, because why not) but often the demands of the narrative lead to joke-free passages where the thin nature of the material becomes painfully apparent. Even the good jokes aren’t always capitalised upon which is particularly remarkable and disappointing. The line between characterisation and running joke is a very fine one in a movie like this, but even when Poehler’s character is identified as an adorable klutz, and Poehler very amusingly pulls a load of boxes down on her own head apparently on purpose – subsequently this trait is never referred to again. Much of the time the laughs come from characters smugly commenting on the tropes they are enacting, in the way which might seem witty in an improv setting, but here just seems a bit laboured. Every so often there’s a performance or a gag which threatens to make the whole thing worthwhile, but ultimately this is weak sauce.

Short Film Programme

We rounded off Sunday night with one of two short film programmes. Rather than go through all the ten-or-so shorts we saw, I will pick out two favourites. Firstly I Think This Is the Closest to How the Footage Looked (d. Yuval Hameiri). In this haunting piece, a young man reenacts the last hour’s of his sick mother’s life with household objects. The reason for the reenactment becomes devastatingly clear half-way through. A huge emotional bang for barely a single buck, Hameiri’s film is a tiny triumph of feeling over resources. More traditional in form is the Irish documentary The Last Days of Peter Bergmann (d. Ciaran Cassidy) which uses interview and CCTV footage to document the meticulous preparations of an unknown man who checked into a hotel in Sligo, Ireland, using the fake name Peter Bergmann. A 20 minute human mystery that may never be solved, Bergmann is a touching riddle, a fleeting enigma, a tiny treatise on how to take charge of matters which no-one can truly control.

All the Sundance staff (though not all the O2 staff) were friendly and helpful and although we felt a bit abandoned to the tender mercies of a dozen or so chain restaurants in the TGI Fridays vein when it came to food and drink, we left the festival inspired, invigorated and largely entertained.

Some shows you should maybe watch

Posted on April 23rd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

So, Breaking Bad has gone, everyone who wants to watch The Wire and The Sopranos has, True Detective was over almost before it began and you don’t need me to tell you that you should be watching Game of Thrones. What else should you be watching, both from the US and from home? Here are some suggestions.

The Good Wife

goodwife-longOver here, this has completely flown under the radar. The pilot episode, and basically the whole first season, doesn’t make it seem all that special. It’s a network drama and it’s on CBS, arguably the most conservative of the big American networks. It stars Julianna Margulies off of ER as Alica Florrick who returns to a career as a lawyer, starting from the bottom again as a junior associate, when her big-shot politician husband goes to prison following a very public sex scandal. And for the first year or two it just kind of motors along, equal parts snappy case-of-the-week “I object” “in my chambers” TV courtroom stuff, and some more soapy material about Alicia’s kids and her sexual tension with senior partner Will Gardner. Fun, but hardly great. Some time around the third season, it slowly starts to become bolder, quirkier, more subversive, more willing to upend the whole premise of the show for an episode, a few episodes, a season. Add to this an amazing roster of guest stars including Alan Cumming, Michael J Fox, Carrie Preston, Nathan Lane and Martha Plimpton to name only a handful and you have probably the best TV law show since Boston Legal and arguably the best American network drama currently on the air.

Watch it on DVD from Amazon, download it from iTunes or watch it on More4.

Orange is the New Black

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Probably the best of the Netflix originals, far better than the rather unsatisfactory Arrested Development episodes and nosing ahead of the fascinating and handsome but compromised House of Cards, this had an amazingly good run of episodes in its first year and its return is eagerly awaited by me at least. Based on the book by Piper Kerman, it tells the story of a seemingly-normal middle-class blonde WASP about to get married, whose reckless past catches up with her in the form of a 14 month jail sentence. The series carefully balances social comment with behind-bars melodrama and once again we have a cast to die for, including USS Voyager’s Captain Janeway in a red fright wig and full-on Russian accent.

Watch it on Netflix or buy the DVD from Amazon, but quick – the new series lands on 6 June.

Justified

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Based on a short story by the late lamented Elmore Leonard, this gunslinging melodrama is more contemporary than it feels. Masterminded by Graham Yost (Speed), this FX series stars Timothy Olyphant as US Marshall Raymond Givens who is too quick-on-the-draw for his Florida bosses and so has his ass transferred back to his home town of Harlan County, Kentucky. There he meets up with old sparring partners, including his no-good dad, and makes some new friends, enemies and frenemies. Largely an adventure series, but brilliantly plotted at its best, it benefits from some deeper more thoughtful characterisation, ending up with that delightful Breaking Bad mix of plenty of high-stakes but plenty of depth too. While it can’t quite claim to scale those heights, this is much, much more than case-of-the week procedural stuff. The first series is a bit bumpy, struggling to find a through-line, suffering from an obsession with religion which never arrives anywhere interesting, and saddled with characters called Bo Crowder, Boyd Crowder and Bowman Crowder to add to the confusion. Only Boyd is really interesting or relevant. The second series is a dramatic improvement with the arrival of the splendid Margo Martindale as the Big Bad Mags Bennett. The third season is almost as good and the fourth is the best yet. The fifth isn’t quite as satisfactory, but the last episode makes it clear that this was really the first half of the final season. Catch it now before it finishes next year.

Download from iTunes or buy the DVD from Amazon. Channel 5 was running it here but has now dropped it.

The Americans

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Another FX series, struggling to find its feet a little, but quietly growing in confidence and with a crackerjack premise. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an apparently ordinary suburban American couple living in Washington DC in the early 1980s, looking after their two kids and running their travel agency. In fact, both were born in the Soviet Union and have been placed on US soil by the Kremlin to run covert missions for the mother country. Both leads are great, sporting an array of wigs and disguises, and the run-of-the-mill jumping, shooting and hiding in cupboards is given an extra frisson by the fact that our “heroes” are on the “wrong side”. As the series continues, it becomes clear that almost everyone on almost every team is compromised to some extent, and of course we get the irony from our twenty-first century perspective that the very thing the Jennings’ are fighting for will eventually be abandoned by those asking them to risk their lives for it. Not all the characters are quite “popping” as they should yet, but the series shows a lot of promise and has already been renewed for a third season.

ITV1 is showing the second series at the moment. Buy the first series on Amazon or download from iTunes.

Nurse Jackie

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Moving over to Showtime, we find Nurse Jackie, or what Edie Falco did after The Sopranos finished. In one of the best pilots of 2009, we meet New York nurse Jackie Peyton, whose attitude towards her job is one of compassionate pragmatism as her personal life gets ever more complicated. To say a lot more would be to undo the elegant structure of the opening episode which continually reveals layer after layer of this fascinating character. Comparisons with House are obvious for various reasons, but Nurse Jackie has a much more cheerfully comic tone and among a tremendous supporting cast features a total stand-out in the form of Merrit Wever as Zoe Barkow, a true original in every respect. As the seasons go on, Nurse Jackie faces the same problem as House – the more the series forces the protagonist to confront their personal issues, the greater the risk of breaking the series for good. Following the departure of original show-runners Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem after Season Four, Season Five hit the reset button pretty hard in order to keep going but the current sixth season seems to be finding an easier groove.

Sky Atlantic has been showing the fifth season and go of course buy it on Amazon or download it from iTunes.

Rev

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And finally, why not something home-grown? Tom Hollander and James Wood’s sitcom about an inner city C of E priest is far from The Vicar of Dibley with testicles. The first two series were funny, heartfelt, well acted and nicely judged. Hollander’s central performance is funny without being cartoony but the more overt acting styles of Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney (Simon McBurney!!) give him energy, while he grounds them – it’s very very clever. Add Olivia Colman as Mrs Vicar and a smattering of largely deadbeat parishoners and there’s a lot to enjoy. But this third series, arriving after a three year gap, has been nothing short of superb, almost apocalyptic in the woes and suffering it has heaped upon Adam Smallbone.

Series Three is finishing on BBC Two and is available on the BBC’s iPlayer. A boxed set of the first two series is available now and a set of all three is coming soon.

That’s enough for one post. Also worth mentioning are Louie, Orphan Black, Portlandia and Veep. Shows I’m watching but can’t really endorse include Helix, The Blacklist, Trophy Wife and Mom.

Oscars 2014 wrap-up

Posted on March 8th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Well, that was… er, underwhelming for the most part.

To take the hosting first, Ellen Degeneres could hardly fail to be generous, amusing and gregarious, but she seemed determined to play it safe. I’m sure I remember Jonathan Ross ordering pizza for the whole studio audience about twenty years ago, but he at least ordered enough for everyone. It was better than Seth McFarlane’s smug misogyny but a far cry from the glory days of Billy Crystal and David Letterman. Where’s the spark? When Amy Poehler and Tina Fey can so accurately and yet so benevolently skewer all of their targets, why is the Oscars host so determined to pussyfoot around? More than that, where’s the ambition? When Neil Patrick Harris celebrates Broadway with a routine which would put many Broadway shows to shame, why does Hollywood celebrate its achievements with a show which would make Broadway die of embarrassment at its paucity of imagination?

Worse than the genial but low-key hosting was the presenters’ lack of wit and preparation. It says a lot for the ceremony as a whole when the arguable highpoint of the whole show was one presenter mangling the name of a singer (I’m looking at you, Jewel Oltaveen) but a lot of people stumbled and fluffed and many looked awkward. One or two were briefly amusing, but no-one could clamber up to the level of actually funny, not even Jim Carrey (who at least tried). Two acceptance speeches stand out in my mind and for opposite reasons. Picking up the award for Best Supporting Actress, radiant Lupita Nyong’o was graceful, self-effacing and sincere. Following her searing performance in 12 Years A Slave,  I can only hope she nimbly escapes the guilt-porn cul-de-sac and starts showing her range in a variety of other roles, for she is clearly a magnificent talent. On the other hand, Matthew McConnaghey failed even to mention the name of the dead man on whose grave he scampered to Oscar glory, preferring to name himself as his own personal hero. This takes nothing away from his excellent performance in Dallas Buyers Club but does make me wish – again! – that he had been up against Tom Hanks, as justice and reason dictated.

So, as you all know, my 12-1 long shot of Gravity for Best Picture failed to make me any money, but I did end up not only winning our personal sweepstake, and with a completely clean sheet too (I hedged my bets by going for Slave for Best Picture). However, even if I’d placed an accumulator bet across all eight major categories, all of my choices had such poor odds, I’d have been lucky to double my money.

It might be worthwhile describing how I run my sweepstake, in case anyone reading this wants to run their own next year. Oscar sweepstakes have a couple of typical approaches, which have opposite vices and virtues. You can go for the top eight only, but then you tend to get a lot of general agreement – many are two-horse races such as Best Director this year, and many are one horse races – who would have bet against Cate Blanchette?

The other obvious option is to have everybody predict the winner in all 24-odd categories, but for many people, choosing who will win Best Sound Effects Editing or Best Documentary Short is going to be little short of guesswork. So, you may get a greater spread of entries, but people may well get bored of filling in quite  so many boxes and start choosing at random which makes a win much less satisfying.

I’ve found a way of splitting the difference. Everybody makes their choice of the Big Eight (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay) and all the other categories are put into a hat. Each player pulls just one “wildcard” category from the hat and makes their choices of that and only that category for a total of nine picks per player. This has a number of advantages. It adds a little bit of luck – if you got Best Song this time round, it was pretty easy to pick “Let It Go” – but does allow you to do your homework to find out, for example, what the documentary aficionados were raving about this year, without the project taking hours on end. It also makes the ceremony more fun. “Best Score is up next – Sam, you that’s your wildcard”.

As to whether justice was done or not, I’m not convinced that 12 Years a Slave will necessarily be a film for the ages. Gravity I think will either turn out to be a groundbreaker which is quickly overtaken, or more likely a Terminator 2 where the effects are both groundbreaking and rarely equalled. The advantage of the streamlined storytelling is that it contains less material which is likely to date it. The drawback of course is that it may be too thin to really resonate through the ensuing years. What the Best Director win will have done for Alfonso Cuaron is to buy him carte blanche to direct absolutely whatever he likes next. That promises to be interesting.

On the screenplay front, the win for Spike Jonze is certainly worthy. The win for John Ridley maybe less so, but I don’t know which contender deserved it a lot more – Wolf of Wall Street maybe? As I predicted, American Hustle was overlooked entirely, which I also think is just. It’s a lot of fun, but it feels a little hollow compared to a lot of its more substantial neighbours. It was a shame that Nebraska didn’t win anything, but going category-by-category I can’t see an obvious oversight.

That’s it then for another year. Join me in 2015 and we’ll do it all again.

Oscars 2014 – Dallas Buyers Club

Posted on March 2nd, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

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Last of my cycle of Oscar movies for 2014 and in many ways it’s the smallest story. The benefit of allowing more movies to battle it out for Academy glory (which doesn’t quite outway the drawback of cluttering the field with irrelevant also-rans) is that movies which are smaller in scope get a chance to compete along with the weighty historical epics, gigantic triumph-over-adversity narratives and special effects fantasies.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s tightly-focused movie centres on Ron Woodroof, diagnosed in 1985, to his horror and disgust, with HIV and given 30 days to live. Although the clock doesn’t run out quite that quickly, his life is changed by the diagnosis, but even compared to the small stakes of Philomena, this tale feels tiny. Woodruff doesn’t change the world, the law, or even his mind except in very small degrees, but it’s a testament to the clarity and energy of the filmmaking and the commitment of the actors that it never feels small as it unfolds.

As Woodroof, McConaughey is revelatory. Painfully gaunt, his lean features framed by an absurd porn-star moustache, his anxious eyes darting from behind heavy lids, he seems poleaxed by the diagnosis, only to flare up into indignant rage and then nimbly transform into a charmy, swaggering with easy charisma. Equally well-judged in a showier role which could so easily have become a cartoon, is Jared Leto as transgender Raymond/Rayon, as Woodroof’s partner in crime. Distrustful of the AZT being pushed by Dr Dennis O’Hare (decent, but given little to do), the two AIDS patients set up a “buyers club”, $400 monthly membership of which includes free experimental HIV drugs smuggled in from Mexico, Japan or wherever Woodroof can procure them.

Pitched between O’Hare’s drug company party line and McConnaghey’s maverick free-marketeering is Jennifer Garner whose Dr Saks is eventually so supportive of McConnaghey’s efforts that it costs her her job. Hers is probably the least satisfactory character, although Garner is as luminous as ever, as the screenplay can’t spare the time to create any kind of real emotional life for her and so she just watches from the sidelines as the movie unfolds around her.

The real triumph of the film is the way director Vallee marshalls the meagre resources at his disposal. With a drastically truncated 25 day shoot, he cuts nimbly, propels the story not just efficiently but effervescently, the drive of the storytelling preventing the grimness of the subject matter from overwhelming the piece. Unable to mount complicated set-ups, he uses the loose hand-held style to his advantage, and in particular uses sound design absolutely brilliantly to make his audience at one with Woodruff’s symptoms and emotional state.

Only in the last 10 or so minutes does it stumble at all, with a court case introduced too late in the day to seem truly relevant or interesting, and lacking the presence of the delightful Leto, but this is a minor quibble in a compelling and charismatic movie that does prove that McConnaghey is more than shirtless rom-com fodder, but does much else besides.

So, with the awards themselves just hours away I am revising my predictions slightly. McConnaghey I think may have the edge over Ejiofor for Best Actor, but it will be a close race. In the screenplay stakes, Her also seems to be gaining ground over American Hustle which might walk away gonglessly despite its wealth of nominations. Other than that, I think I’m on firm ground, but as so many of my picks are the bookies’ favourites, even an accumulator can’t win me any real cash, so I’m still holding out the faintest of hopes that Gravity will walk away with Best Picture, netting me £120 for a ten quid stake.

Overall, though, my favourite of this year’s nine isn’t as groundbreaking as Alfonso Cuaron’s film, nor as moving as 12 Years, nor even as charming as Philomena, but it was the most purely entertaining of the set and included a career-defining performance as well as any number of stunning sequences – it’s Martin Scorse’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a very fine film in what’s been a pretty strong year, Llewyn Davis aside.

Oscars 2014 – Her

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

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Some spoilers – be warned.

As previously noted, I thought this was a dreadful idea for a movie. Electric Dreams seemed facile and absurd in 1984, but computers being so much more commonplace in 2014, we know so much more about their strengths and limitations now which makes a movie like this very, very tricky to pull off. Anyone who has talked to Siri for any length of time will no doubt have been delighted by the wit of some of the reponses and will also have been frustrated by the system’s inability to parse what would seem like very simple instructions to another human.

And yet, from this thinnest and seemingly most unproductive of premises, Spike Jonze as writer and director has created something rather magical. This sweet, sad, odd, funny, charming, moving film is by no means perfect but it is one of the most purely original and beguiling films of the year, and I think earns its place come Oscar time, albeit in the “also-ran” category.

The pitch is as follows – sometime in the near future, when trousers are worn extremely high and writing sappy letters on behalf of other people is a full-time job, a new operating system will be developed which has full artificial intelligence and which is expressly designed to interact with you. Theodore Twombly, whose personal life is a disaster, purchases and installs this software, creating a virtual companion for himself, named Samantha, whom he proceeds to fall in love with.

There are numerous pitfalls here for an unwary director. The first is to make the software convincing. By beginning the story in a future world, where video games take up half the living room and where natural language interaction is the usual way of issuing instructions to personal computers, Jonze creates a very useful credibility stepping-stone from the limitations of today’s devices to the unlimited processing powers of Samantha. The second is to avoid it being creepy. If we feel like Samantha is a made-to-order psychological prostitute, we will lose sympathy for the lead character very quickly. Jonze carefully lays the groundwork, confronting Twombly with a genuine creep in the form of a very funny voice-only cameo from Kristen Wiig as one “SexyKitten” whom Twombly meets in an online sex chat room. But he is also helped enormously by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is suitably off-kilter – a straight-arrow leading man actor like Matt Damon or Tom Cruise kills the movie dead – but also achingly vulnerable and uncertain.

It’s also clear that – as far as Jonze is concerned – this isn’t really a science fiction movie. The world-building is all relegated to the background, we have no idea what breakthroughs have made this technology possible, and the details of how “Samantha” works are glossed over (the interview which the installer conducts is over with almost before it’s begun – this isn’t a made-to-order perfect woman unless the company has been spying on Twombly for months). And there’s no broadening of the scope of the story to show, for example, the company which created this software getting wiped out on the stock exchange when all the sentient OSes suddenly decide to “leave”. Sometimes, this refusal to remove the narrative blinkers is a weakness. When Samantha goes off-line, leaving Twombly to panic and rush his hand-set to the IT emergency room, she blithely replies on her return that she had sent him an email informing him of her forthcoming absence. Fine, but how is he expected to read an email without an operating system?

However, when the ramifications of this “magic bean” intersect with the human drama which is unfolding, then the follow-through is admirably thorough. Human/OS romantic relationships are, if not taken for granted, certainly expected and talked about. Of course! Of course Theodore wouldn’t be the only one to become intimate with his gracefully personal personal assistant. An OS has more in common with another OSes than with a human master. Of course! And of course they would be able to communicate effortlessly with each other in this connected world.

The limited scope of the movie puts a lot of weight on a relatively small cast. As well as Phoenix, Jonze casts Rooney Mara as Twombly’s ex-wife, Chris Pratt as his work buddy, Olivia Wilde as his blind date, Amy Adams as his best gal-pal and – apparently – a 25-year-old David Hyde Pierce as her husband. All do excellent work, especially Wilde who makes the most of a two-scene cameo. Amy Adams is on fine form too, far less glamorous then in American Hustle but equally compelling.

As Twombly blunders through misunderstanding after crass remark, he is permitted some moments of happiness, even joy, in Samantha’s company and Scarlett Johansson also does lovely work as the voice of the software. It’s these scenes which give us hope for the future. Twombly’s relationship with his computer may have been a horribly misguided, fucked-up, dead end (nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the extraordinary scene where Samantha procures a sexual surrogate to consummate her and Theodore’s love) but it helped heal some wounds, and Theodore ends the film if not having been made whole then at least having learned to feel again, to laugh again, to share again.

With a lovely and very distinctive soundtrack from Canadian band Arcade Fire, Her is a very carefully controlled piece of work – delicate, intimate and precisely focused. By avoiding really exploring the wider consequences of the creation of an army of Samanthas, Jonze is able to tell a deeply personal story about one man’s struggle against loneliness. But it’s still occasionally frustrating to get only tiny glimpses of another, broader, more technological but no less interesting, story happening outside the frame. Whether it would have been possible to set such a fragile love story in this wider context is unanswerable. What’s clear is that Spike Jonze achieved exactly what he set out to, and the result is rather lovely.

At The Movies – Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Inside Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac with that elusive cat.

I was surprised that this didn’t sneak into the Best Picture nominees. Ever since 1996’s Fargo, the Academy has tended to appreciate the Coen Brothers’ efforts, nominating True Grit in 2010, A Serious Man in 2009 and No Country for Old Men which won in 2007. I was even more surprised given the near-universal critical acclaim it received, and since I’ve enjoyed almost everything the Coens have produced, I fully expected to love this one. Having seen it, I’m no longer surprised that it wasn’t nominated and even more startled at the unstinting praise it seems to have garnered.

It starts promisingly, with Oscar Isaac brilliantly portraying Llewyn Davis as a bitter, misanthropic, parasitical, drifter, permanently couch-surfing as he struggles to scratch together a few hundred bucks here and there playing folk music. On leaving the apartment of his bewilderingly benevolent uptown friends the Gorfeins, he mistakenly lets their cat out and ends up almost adopting the poor thing. From here, he ends up at Carey Mulligan’s Greenwich Village apartment and manages to make a little bit of cash playing guitar on a novelty song written by her boyfriend played by Justin Timberlake.

So far, so good. We are offered a bracingly unlikeable hero, struggling for meaning and identity in a heartless universe – see also Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik and to some extent, even Fargo’s Jerry  Lundegaard. But this is a movie trying to find a centre, a narrative thread that will pull us through. We have various plots set in motion – Llewyn’s opportunity to return to the navy, the Gorfein’s cat, his ex-girlfriend who may have secretly raised his child in Akron, the abortion which he has to procur for Mulligan, the song he has recorded with Timberlake, but they have not yet begun to satisfyingly mesh.

And suddenly, they are all, repeat all, underline all, abandoned for an entirely self-contained thirty minute stretch in the middle of the movie, wherein Llewyn shares a car with an absurdly over-the-top John Goodman, laboriously makes his way to Chicago, gets an amazing offer from record magnate F Murray Abraham, turns it down and equally laboriously makes his way back to Chicago to rejoin the movie I thought I was watching. By now, even if the Coens had been interested in joining up the plot-threads, there isn’t time, so it’s left to a clumsy revisiting of an earlier flash-forward to try and give this narrative porridge some sense of structure. It’s worth noticing that this is the third rather episodic film I’ve seen in a row to use this device and here it’s done particularly pointlessly. The sequence we have to watch twice is hardly any more interesting or significant than those around it, and it’s far from clear when we first see it that it is a flash-forward which briefly threatens to turn the whole film into Groundhog Day when suddenly it starts happening again.

I can certainly see what other critics liked about this – Llewyn is a fascinating character, brilliantly realised by Oscar Isaac and by music supervisors T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. The supporting cast are all fine, and some (Abraham, Mulligan) are exceptional. Some of the episodes are diverting in themselves, others are just a bit “so-what”, but the whole is so wilfully disorganised and uninterested in cause-and-effect that it just starts to become tedious. If you can’t be bothered to arrange the episodes in your story to create some semblance of relevance, I’m not sure I can be bothered to watch.

We get to see Llewyn at his most vulnerable when his doctor friend reveals that he might have a child in Akron. It’s possibly the most powerful scene in the film. Later as he is driving back from Chicago, he passes the turning for Akron – but declines to take it. In a movie which generally has been well-structured and where the plot is strong, this would be a fascinating character beat. In a movie which is characterised by hopeful juxtaposition of unrelated cameos, it’s the last straw.

I return briefly to some points I made about 12 Years a Slave, while noting that Llewyn Davis is by far the lesser film. It is certainly arguable that the events depicting in the Coens’ film are much more like real-life. But it’s also worth pointing out that real life is frequently very boring. The job of an entertainer in a narrative medium is to cut out the dull bits and give the rest relevance and power by properly constructing the architecture of the story. It is also no doubt true that the point of the film is largely that Llewyn is fundamentally incapable of change, growth or development, but it nevertheless seems to me that the story of a character who cannot change can be much more powerfully told if placed in a context where familiar screen archetypes would change. Instead, Llewyn’s “fuck this” attitude seems to have infected the entire screenplay, resulting in a series of unrelated events which wouldn’t really have the power to change anybody.

I don’t know if this kind of what-the-hell plotting is intended to give the movie greater poignancy, significance, insight or profundity. I do know that simply typing up a handful of unrelated incidents and stopping on page 120 is a hell of lot easier than constructing a satisfying narrative, with set-ups and payoffs and cause-and-effect throughout. A major disappointment from one of my favourite movie-makers and I can’t for the life of me understand why everyone else seems to love it so much.

It occurs to me that I am pretty much a Coen completest, so for context, here’s a quick rundown of my take on their other movies.

Blood Simple
Powerful, brooding, brilliantly plotted and properly nasty. The low budget shows from time to time, but with a script and performances this good, who cares?

Raising Arizona
Their breakthrough, a sort of live-action cartoon, radically different from their debut, with brilliantly demented lead performances from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. I don’t love it the way some people do, but I like it a lot.

Miller’s Crossing
Amazingly complicated film noir with classic scene after classic scene. Just great.

Barton Fink
Just possibly my favourite – a film only the Coens could make. A satire on Hollywood capitalism and East Coast narcissism equally which suddenly turns into a ferocious grand-guinol nightmare in the final reel.

The Hudsucker Proxy
Maybe their most charming film, although a big flop at the box office, especially compared to its more than usually lavish budget. I like it a great deal, possibly because of how unpopular it is amongst Coen fans.

Fargo
A masterpiece of atmosphere, characterisation, plotting and cinematography. Earns all the praise the gets lavished upon it.

The Big Lebowski
Sprawls where Fargo marches relentlessly, bloated where Fink is lean and focused, but by combining the life-and-death stakes of Fargo’s kidnapping plot, with Hudsucker’s charmingly naive characters, the Coens fashioned another classic which won them armies of new fans.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
A disappointment after the brilliant run of form they experienced up till now. The cheerful stupidity of the characters pulls in the opposite direction from the Homeric template they’ve given themselves and so the film lurches about a bit and goes past several possible endings. The lead performances however are great and the film contains many stand-out sequences.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Powerful stuff to begin with, but the plot runs out of steam and eventually turns into the same pointless slurry as Llewyn Davis only without the songs. My least favourite of their films by quite a distance.

Intolerable Cruelty
The reviews of this were so bad, I had to stay away. It’s not a true Coen Brothers movie in any case, as Joel and Ethan were drafted in to doctor an ailing script and somehow ended up directing it.

The Ladykillers
Just horrible. If you have the urge to watch this film, just put on the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick version instead. Watch it all the way to the end. Then watch it again. Then destroy any copy of the Coens film in your possession. The only reason I like this more than The Man Who Wasn’t There is Tom Hanks as The Professor. He is electrifying throughout.

No Country for Old Men
Frustrating, because again any semblance of plotting is abandoned in the final third, but the shift in emphasis seems somewhat more purposeful here, and all the sequences are excellent, even if it feels a little bit like reels from two different, but related, movies have been accidentally spliced together.

Burn After Reading
Somewhat trivial, but bouncy and fun. Very happily passes the time.

A Serious Man
A very similar theme to Llewyn Davis but Larry Gopnik is basically a decent guy who makes good decisions, which makes the tiny calamities which unravel his life so much more meaningful. Larry Gopnik’s life doesn’t make much sense to him, but he notices this and complains about it, and seems to live in a narrative world where choices matter. Llewyn Davis lives in a narrative world where it doesn’t much matter what he or anybody else does, because no idea carries over from one scene to the next.

True Grit
A far more faithful version of the novel than the earlier version starring John Wayne, with better supporting performances and with better-staged action. After the intensely personal A Serious Man though, this felt a bit workmanlike.

Next up, Spike Jonze’s Her

Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).

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Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.

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The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.