My Life in Tech – or The Unexpected Virtue of Apple-ness

Posted on February 27th, 2015 in Technology | No Comments »

Are you thinking about the Apple Watch?

Wait, let me start at the beginning.

motorola_memphis_mr2011997 was a vastly different time. Yes, email had been around for a while (I had my first email account at university in 1990) but the Internet wasn’t anything like the all-pervading force it is today. I accessed the Internet via a dial-up modem (which stopped other people in the house from using the telephone). I used it mainly to access bulletin boards like CiX, since the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I wouldn’t make my first purchase on Amazon until October 1998. I wouldn’t upload my first website until 1999. Paypal was a year away. YouTube was eight years away. Public access to Facebook was nine years away. Twitter was inconceivable. And my first mobile phone looked something like this.

The battery life was pretty good, and it made phone calls and sent new things called SMSes or “text messages”. Mobile phones had only recently stopped being the preserve of yuppies and had also recently stopped being the size (and weight) of housebricks. They were fairly expensive to own and to use, however, and so my wife and I ended up sharing this one. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally got my own, which by now looked something like this.

nokia3310It was also in 2000 that I bought a PDA (personal digital assistant) for the first time. I’d been tempted by a Psion Organiser in the 1980s but I couldn’t afford one that was actually any good. By now, Psion was in decline and Palm was the new market leader.

Palm had introduced the original Palm Pilot in 1996. This digital calendar, phone book, eBook reader, notepad and calculator used a stylus to enter data via a simplified alphabet called Graffiti, but early models – although impressive for the time – were very expensive.

m100_bigWhen Palm released the Palm m100, I had to have it. It cost around a hundred quid, was powered by two AAA batteries and it had to be synced to a computer to get updated information on to it (a service called AvantGo synced and cached stripped-down web-pages for later reading on-the-go). It rapidly took over my life.

tungstenOver time, I went through several generations of Palms, culminating in the Palm Tungsten TX which finally got rid of the dedicated Graffiti area (which accepted input from the stylus but which couldn’t display anything), had a colour screen (320×480) and Wi-Fi – but still no cellular connectivity. I got mine around 2006 and its vibrant app development community meant there was precious little it couldn’t do.

Sony_Ericsson_K810i_front (1)I still had a mobile phone at this point which by now looked something like this. For a while, I had an MP3 player as well but later Palms which accepted SD cards eventually took over this role.

Why so many devices? Obviously, I knew that objects existed which combined the functions of phone and PDA into a single device, but Palm Treos and Compaq iPAQs seemed somehow clunky to me, certainly physically if not in terms of software, and I’d got really used to my Sony Ericsson and my Palm Tungsten and didn’t really see a compelling reason to drop either.

I’d also stopped using Apple products since giving up being a graphic designer. At one point my desk at work had a Mac for Photoshop and QuarkXPress and a Windows PC for coding and I was running both of them off one giant monitor. Now, I was working from home and I’d scaled my home computer down to a laptop and relegated my Windows PC to the role of media centre. I’d played with iMacs and been impressed at how pretty they were, but Apple was a niche player as far as I could see, and I wasn’t in that niche.

It’s worth pausing just for a moment here to look at where Palm stood at this point. They were the market leaders in PDAs, largely because of the enormous variety of apps available. Even as far back as 2000, usability guru Jakob Neilsen had noted that what he called the “deck of cards form-factor” was far superior to the “candy bar” format of most “feature phones”. Palm was surely poised to dominate the fast-approaching smartphone revolution. Weren’t they?

Well, I might not have been using Apple products regularly, but I certainly sat up and took notice when Beaming Steve unveiled the original iPhone in June 2007. Clearly this was an amazing device, but as someone who’d never even owned an iPod, I didn’t have any brand loyalty to Apple and all I could see were the flaws. No 3G, which meant sluggish Internet, and you couldn’t surf and talk at the same time. No apps, so you couldn’t find nifty new software like I could on my Palm. No expandable storage. And – ouch – that price! When O2 announced it for sale to UK consumers in November, I just continued with my Wi-Fi Palm Tungsten and my T-Mobile Sony Ericsson candy bar phone.

However, when the far cheaper iPod Touch was announced in 2007, I was suddenly convinced, and got Deborah to buy me one in the States where she was visiting friends and send it home to me. I abandoned my Palm, downloaded iTunes and bought a bunch of CDs to rip in order to use it to its fullest. Suddenly my crummy Tungsten with its fiddly stylus seemed like Stone Age technology. But worse was to come for Palm.

foleoAlso, in 2007, Palm announced what amounted to a new category of devices – the Palm Foleo. This amazingly small and light personal computer had a full-sized keyboard and a 10 inch screen. Today we’d say it looks a little like a netbook and a little like a Microsoft Surface. What it didn’t have was 3G connectivity, but you could pair it with your Treo and download email on the go.

Apple should have been worried. Blackberry – who owned corporate-email-on-the-go at this point – should have been worried. But if you’re wondering why you never saw any of these Foleos in the wild, it’s because three months after announcing it – and before it had shipped a single unit – Palm cancelled the project altogether. From there, Palm spiralled into take-overs, functional divisions and ultimately irrelevancy as Apple seized the initiative.

When the refreshingly affordable iPhone 3G was announced in 2008, I needed no more persuading. My iPod Touch had become invaluable. I had “jailbroken” it so I could install apps, I was subscribing to a bunch of podcasts and listening to audio books, and I was sick of having to try and find Wi-Fi hotspots before I could check my email or browse the web. I paid off T-Mobile, abandoned my Sony Ericsson candybar phone and I was all-in with Apple.

The rest is pretty much as you might expect. I have bought every model of iPhone since – Apple products keep their value surprisingly well, so I can often very nearly subsidise the entire cost of the upgrade by selling the old model on eBay. I bought the original iPad, then fell in love with the smart cover on the iPad 2, then felt I needed the retina display on the iPad 3 and then finally wanted to get an iPad with a lightning connector, so I got the iPad Air. I didn’t get the iPad Air 2, as the only reason to upgrade that I could see was Touch ID, which is nice and all, but I’m saving up for…

The Apple Watch.

Okay, so – to be clear – this is almost certainly a bad idea. The first generation Apple Watch, like the 2G iPhone and the inch-thick 2010 iPad is likely to be a lavishly-priced prototype rather than the real deal. The inevitable Apple Watch 2 is no doubt going to be half the thickness, have twice the battery life and provide intimate massages on demand but – I can’t wait. I want to test this thing out, and I’m getting itchy. We’re told that it will be out in “early 2015” which has now been clarified to “April” (which I guess is early 2015, but it’s certainly late early 2015). If it goes on-sale Friday 24 April, say, that means we can expect an event of some kind week beginning 6 April 2015, so we should be hearing something around the end of March. (Updated to note – we learned yesterday, 26 February, that the event will be held on 9 March, which suggests a slightly earlier ship date.)

At the moment we don’t really know what kind of money we’re going to have to plunk down. Apple has said prices will start at $349 which probably works out as something between £279 and £319 when you factor in VAT. But is that for the watch, and then your choice of strap is extra? Or do all the combos on the Apple website represent different SKUs? And if they do, will you be able to also buy extra straps? What does $349 get you? The stainless steel model or only something in the aluminium “Sport” range? Just the luminous plastic strap, or something fancier like the Link Bracelet or the Milanese Loop? Will it be out in the UK in April, or do we have to wait? (Ominously, the US Apple web site says “Coming early 2015” but the UK Apple web site says “Available in 2015”.)

And when it is finally available, what do I want? Previously, it was an easy choice (“the black one with the most storage, please,”) but this is a fashion accessory and Apple has provided a bewildering array of possible options. My skinny wrist probably means the 38mm model is the one to go for (even though that means fewer pixels, not just a physically smaller screen). I would ideally like the Black Stainless Steel model with the Link Bracelet, but I’m not paying £700 for the privilege. If the Watch Sport range is the only one which is remotely affordable, then I guess it will have to be the Space Grey Aluminium with Black Fluroelastomer band. The 18 carat gold models are clearly meant only for demented millionaires, in which category I do not alas qualify – some estimates put the price as high as $20,000!

And if it is US only, I may be looking into one of those services which provides you with a US postal address and then ships the goods on to you. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Oscars 2015: Wrap-up

Posted on February 23rd, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Okay, let’s take the ceremony itself first. Following stellar opening numbers at various Tony Awards, expectations were high for Neil Patrick Harris. His opening number was technically nifty and passably amusing, but not in quite the same league, even with help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. Harris subsequently restricted himself to 30 second spots and the weakest of all possible jokes. Serious, after he began “Our next presenter is so sweet you could eat her up with-a-spoon…” we all expected him to continue “…please welcome Jennifer Lopez.” But no, the winsome star of Wild showed up instead.

The magic trick at the end was cute and funny, but the pencil sketches for In Memoriam were much less interesting and moving than clips would have been, and the bizarre Lady Gaga tribute to The Sound of Music was baffling. Why, with all the time and money and talent in the world, does the Academy find this show so difficult to pull off, year after year?

On to the results – the acting categories all went exactly as anticipated, and it was great to see The Grand Budapest Hotel scooping up so many awards outside the “big eight”, to the point where it tied with Birdman for the most awards (four), one behind Whiplash, which in the end did not benefit from its inclusion in the Best Adapted Screenplay award which went to a tiny squeaky-voiced child who claims to have written The Imitation Game. Graham Moore being seven years old might excuse his car-crash of a script, but I have to say his acceptance speech was just about perfect. In my blog, I had picked Budapest for Best Original Screenplay, but at our sweepstake on the night I opted for Birdman which proved correct, but honestly it was a three-way coin-flip between those two and Boyhood.

The only other call I got wrong was the big one – Best Picture. It looked like a straight fight between Boyhood and Birdman with the former starting off as the bookies’ favourite, but the latter gathering momentum as the day neared. I figured that Boyhood was the bigger achievement in movie-making, but that the director of Birdman could not be ignored and so picked Iñárritu for director, but Boyhood for Best Picture. In the end, Birdman took both which I can’t help but be pleased about. The making of Boyhood is an amazing process, but the eventual movie is rather a thin piece of work. Birdman ain’t perfect, but it fizzes with invention and was probably my favourite of the nominees.

That’s it for this year. I still hope to catch up with Big Eyes, Inherent Vice, Big Hero 6 and Mr Turner at some point, and I watched Nightcrawler on my iPad on a train recently and I thoroughly recommend it. See you next time.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Posted on February 19th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

star-trek-3-the-search-for-spock

The old adage with Star Trek movies is “the even-numbered ones are good”. This doesn’t work with Star Trek X as we’ll see, but it holds pretty well for most of the series and it’s certainly true that III isn’t half as good as the films either side of it. But it’s easy to overlook it, sitting as it does between the most iconic film in the series and the most fun film in the series.

The success of Star Trek II had made Star Trek III inevitable, and Harve Bennett had more than proved himself an able producer. But more Trek meant more Spock and Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to return only if we was also able to sit in the director’s chair. Luckily (or not, as we’ll see) Nicholas Meyer wanted no part of a movie which was going to unpick the narrative of Star Trek II, and so with a studio-imposed deadline breathing down his neck, Harve Bennett sat down to write the screenplay on his own.

With the benefit of hindsight, the job of Star Trek III is to move the characters from their positions at the end of Star Trek II, to the positions they need to be in to start Star Trek IV. These three films make a particularly tight trilogy, unlike anything else in the series. They didn’t need to do that. Plenty of screenwriters would have picked up the story back on Earth, or at a Starbase, where the Enterprise and her crew are getting patched up. But Bennett just keeps the ball rolling, bringing Saavik and David along for the ride, and reusing the Genesis device as the Macguffin (as well as an awful lot of footage from the previous film). Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a very efficient or a very unimaginative way of constructing a story. The only new element is a gang of Klingons (if you can call Klingons in a Star Trek movie “new”) led by a virtually unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. He makes a fine villain, but he’s hardly in Ricardo Montalban’s class.

As well as being lean to the point of austere, the movie is also very, very depressing at times. Whereas in Wrath of Khan, Kirk triumphs over impossible odds, in Search for Spock, he fails at pretty much every turn. Yes, he finally manages to deliver Bones to Vulcan where they extract his Vulcan pal’s marbles and ladle them back into his rapidly-aging body – but pretty much everything else is a disaster. Kirk gets his son killed, has to blow up the Enterprise, loses his standing with Star Fleet and barely escapes with his own sorry life. The constant air of gloom which pervades this movie makes it quite difficult to engage with at times. The motto of the first film was “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The motto of the second film clearly seems to be “one Leonard Nimoy is worth a dozen of you clowns.”

And yet, amid all the bloodshed and destruction and horror, it’s the lighter moments which work best and which stick in the mind. Bennett’s script is the first (and probably one of only two) which actually succeeds in using the TV cast as an ensemble, instead of making it the Kirk, Spock and (if you’re lucky) McCoy show, plus five other guys who get seven lines between them.

Obviously it helps that Spock (or at least Leonard Nimoy) is absent almost throughout, but one wonders at the patience of George Takei, James Doohan et al, as they stood quietly at the back for most of the two previous films. And for no reason – the film roars into life when Kirk elects to steal the Enterprise and Scotty, Chekhov, Uhuru and Sulu spring into action like a space-faring Oceans Eleven, while Saavik tends to the brainless Spock on the Genesis planet. Kirstie Alley declined to return to the role, but miraculously, Saavik once again makes it to the end credits without betraying anyone or dying at all. She is now played with a good deal more class but rather less vulnerability by Robin Curtis. The nearest we get to a turncoat/sacrificial lamb is James B Sikking as the odious commander of the Excelsior, the Federations latest and greatest, which can’t make it out of space-dock when Scotty removes the spark-plugs. So, he’s just a doofus rather than a traitor.

Nimoy directs efficiently, but without noticeable flair and professional standards are all suitably high, with ILM once again turning in beautiful matte paintings, spaceships and phaser blasts. And if the Genesis planet sometimes looks a bit studio-y as it blows itself up, well that adds a welcome touch of nostalgia. The movie ends with the Star Trek cast (even Nichelle Nichols, bafflingly left out of the adventures on and around Genesis) celebrating the return of Spock, but with no ship, several casualties and on the run. Given how much of the set-up takes place in the previous film and given how little is resolved in this one, it’s hard to see Star Trek III as a hugely successful movie in its own right, but as a chapter in the ongoing saga, it works just fine.

Facts and figures

Released: 1 June 1984
Budget: $16m
Box office: $87m
Writers: Harve Bennett
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

Oscars 2015: American Sniper

Posted on February 9th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

2015-01-23-AMERICANSNIPERbigger

In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood loved movies called “The Big Something”. These days it’s “American Something” (American Hustle, American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Pie, American Graffiti, The American President, An American Tale, American Dreamz, Wet Hot American Summer et cetera and so forth). However, the title American Sniper is rather apt here, since Clint Eastwood’s uneasy meditation on Iraq is largely about being an American as well as being a sniper.

Two quick announcements before we proceed. Firstly, read on with caution – there will be spoilers. Secondly, this will be a rather indecisive review of a rather indecisive film. Okay. Ready, aim, fire…

Yet another awards-season biopic, this movie wears its true life credentials a little more lightly than The Irritation Game or The Theory of Nothing. Protagonist Chris Kyle is drawn from real life, but he’s nowhere near as famous as Britain’s beloved wheelchair boffin, or the Father of Modern Computing™. The first third of the movie is by far the most satisfying, build around a neat structural device as Navy SEAL Kyle targets a woman and child in the streets of Iraq and has to decide whether or not the object which they are carrying presents a threat to the American troops below. From here, we flip back to his youth, and young adulthood, but although the movies’ chronology darts all over the place, Director Eastwood doesn’t need captions or clunky dialogue to tell us where or when we are (four captions numbering off Kyle’s four tours of duty are all we ever get). Throughout his style is simple, economical and effective – with one exception as we’ll see.

Once Kyle becomes a grown-up, he is portrayed by a physically pumped-up but emotionally restrained Bradley Cooper. As a young man, chatting up Sienna Miller in a bar, and later in basic training, he is pinkly buff, like an over-inflated child’s toy, but as the war wears on, he becomes leaner, more grizzled. The bar scene is a neat one. Nothing very striking or new about it – you’ve seen similar scenes dozens of times before – but it’s hard to pick out a cliché in Jason Hall’s dialogue, and both stars give it life and specificity.

Once the narrative circle closes at the end of Act One, however, two things happen. The first is that the genre demands of a war movie start to make themselves felt. I have no idea how much of what happens in American Sniper is accurate, but I don’t have the same complaints that I had about the Turing biopic. Nothing in the Eastwood movie violates logic, but Kyle does quickly become a one-man army, taking charge of another division’s operations without orders, and uncovering hidden gun caches all on his own. And when we start narrowing the scope of the conflict down to a crazed war lord who murders children with a drill to the head, I can’t help but feel that the Prestige War is Hell movie has been hijacked by Rambo, or more aptly Dirty Harry. So, when a young marine starts showing off his new engagement ring, is it too much to hope that the improbably named “Biggles” won’t be next in line for a bullet? Bang! Yup, I guess so.

The second thing which happens is that we start flipping between Kyle’s life in Iraq and his life back home with wife Miller and suitably adorable kids. There’s a suggestion here that the emotional walls which Kyle has to erect in order to sustain his sanity in the madness of the war-zone make it impossible to fully function back in a domestic environment. His chipper, single-minded, simple-headed philosophy of “America first” begins to contrast quite strongly with the mess, chaos and lack of order he faces in Fallujah, and the pointless, saccharine quality of his suburban married life at home.

But while I admire the restraint shown in avoiding giving movie-Kyle the kind of full-blown melt-down, or colossal epiphany which real-life Kyle evidently did not have, as a movie experience it constantly simmers but never quite comes to the boil. This is perhaps why some viewers have read it as an anti-war polemic and other as a blood-soaked paean to the glories of warfare. Eastwood just gives us the story and lets us make up our own minds. This is an admirable stance, but a rather unsatisfying way of making a movie.

So, we avoid the movie-of-the-week cocksure young man who learns Important Lessons About Life and who Returns from the Theatre of War a Different Man rubbish, but we also avoid a third act. After a rather touching sequence in which Kyle befriends a number of injured veterans, the film ends very abruptly, as did Kyle’s own life. The circumstances of his death are unclear and don’t in any way form a continuation of the human story and thus are wisely omitted, and so the real third act of the movie comes twenty minutes earlier when the genre demands take hold completely, and we get an extremely well-executed and very suspenseful sequence in which Kyle makes an impossible shot to take out his Iraqi counterpart, and no doubt saves American lives by doing so. But he also calls attention to his team’s position and there follows a tremendous firefight and last minute panicky extraction in the middle of a dust-storm.

Well done thought it is, this is pure boys own adventure stuff, which would not have been out-of-place in any moderate intelligent action thriller. The only bum note is the ridiculous CGI slow-motion bullet which whistles over a mile across an Iraqi cityscape, (which is the Eastwood’s one slip) but even without that, all of the complexity, both human and political, just drops clean out of the movie at this point.

So, what to make of American Sniper? Well, I’m certainly grateful that for all the compressing, simplifying and streamlining which is an inevitable part of the process of turning messy reality into a two hour movie, we haven’t ended up with something as plastic and hollow as the Turing or Hawking biopics. However, Eastwood only has himself to blame if people are reading the movie in a way other than he intended, since it’s very hard to work out just what he’s trying to say here. Kyle is altered by his four tours of duty, but less so (physically and emotionally) than many others we see and hear about. The Iraq conflict appears to be mismanaged and to lack any real coordination, but there’s no attempt at a Green Zone-style analysis of just how the point of going to war got lost somewhere between the politicians and the generals. And after that sparky bar scene, Sienna Miller just becomes “the wife” and the scenes with Kyle back home are frustratingly generic for the most part.

Bradley Cooper’s restrained performance fills in a few of these gaps – the contrast between the cocky young cowboy in his twenties and the sober veteran in his thirties is well executed, but quite what point Eastwood was trying to make I could not tell you. And whether this would have been a better or a worse movie if he’d make that point more clearly – well I can’t tell you that either.

As that concludes my viewing of the Best Picture nominees, let me have a go at a few predictions. After a generally rotten performance in most previous years, I did manage 100% success in our Oscars sweepstake last year, so here are my current thoughts about the top categories.

Best Picture must surely go to Boyhood. It’s the bookies’ favourite by a long way and is scooping up a lot of awards all over the place.

Best Director I’m not sure about. While these two awards often go in lock-step I have a feeling that Alejandro Iñárritu might have a better shot that Richard Linklater, simply because Birdman looks so stunning.

Best Actor and Best Actress are both pretty easy to call. Nothing the Academy likes better than a disability and so Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore both better have speeches ready.

Best Supporting Actor will very likely go to JK Simmons, and deservedly so. Best Supporting Actress I think might go to Patricia Arquette. She’s probably the best thing in Boyhood and she just scooped the BAFTA, so she must be in with a shout.

Best Original Screenplay is a tough one to call with Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel all having strong claims. I’ve got a hunch that Budapest is going to do well overall and it’s probably the best screenplay of the lot, as a piece of literature.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a touch more straightforward. If we discount the flabby boffin biopics, and remove too-controversial American Sniper and too-divisive Inherent Vice from the running, we are left with Whiplash which may benefit from the extra attention it got due to its bizarre placing int this category – but that might work out well for Chazelle.

My Star Trek movie reviews will resume next week, and I’ll also have a report on the ceremony and the winners and losers shortly after the big show on 22 February.

Oscars 2015: The Imitation Game

Posted on February 6th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

imitation

Oh god. If The Theory of Everything was bland then The Imitation Game is absolutely ghastly. Working with what is arguably a more compelling story, save that the central character’s failings are less conspicuous, it pours a high-gloss movie sheen over everything which almost completely obscures anything which might have been interesting about its central character or the events of his life.

The life of Turing is a bit easier to attack than the life of Hawking, from a structural point of view at least. Almost everything he did which is of interest to modern-day movie-goers, he did at Bletchley Park between 1939 and 1945, save for his prosecution for homosexuality in 1952 (or as the movie insists, 1951) and later suicide. Shamelessly ripping-off the excellent play and TV film Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi as Turing (both works cite Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma as a source but the new film doesn’t give playwright Hugh Whitemore even a sniff of a mention), the movie hops distractedly about through the same three different time zones (or four if you count the clunkingly melodramatic voice-over which keeps duplicating information given in dialogue) – Turing’s school days, his time at Bletchley and his investigation by Rory Kinnear’s honest Manchester copper.

Whereas Everything simply pretended that Hawking wasn’t a scientist at all for much of its running time, Imitation attempts to put Turing’s cryptanalysis front-and-centre but the rendition is laughably simplified to the point of near total ridicule. Knowing nothing about Turing’s life, a new viewer might conclude that he recruited young men and women who were crossword puzzle geniuses so that they could stand idly by and watch him build a code-cracking machine unaided which simple arithmetic would tell him is incapable or working fast enough to sort through all the possible combinations of German ciphers before they change them the next morning, but which he runs futilely every day until he is told for the second time that the Germans have a tendency to send similar messages on different days, whereupon the machine starts working and from that moment on decrypts all German coded messages without further intervention. Not only is none of that true, but most of it is absurd on its face.

Sitting at the centre of this mess is poor Benedict Cumberbatch, trying very hard to make sure no-one mistakes Turing for Sherlock. He certainly tries, giving donnish Turing a high, reedy voice with a slight lisp and none of Holmes’ demented swagger. It’s an attempt which is doomed to failure however, since the screenplay is so utterly determined to turn him into Sherlock in any case – historical veracity and internal logic be damned.

The supporting cast also show the same kind of bold outlines, bright colours and total lack of grace and subtlety, like that awful cartoon version of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings books on TV recently. Leading the way is the film’s sort-of love interest in the spindly form of Keira Knightley (fine) who solves Turing’s crossword puzzle test in three quarters of the time it takes him (why?), but thereafter restricts her involvement in the great work to being a winsome sounding board for the Eccentric Genius and having a vaguely unlikely (but possibly true) blasé attitude towards her fiancé’s homosexuality. Elsewhere, Graham Moore’s clunking screenplay manufactures a ridiculously blinkered baddie out of Cdr Denniston (whom Charles Dance somehow manages to play with a straight face), a smooth ally in Mark Strong’s General Menzies and a nice turn from Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander.

For reasons which pass all understanding, the movie also finds it necessary to parachute in Soviet spy John Caincross as one of Turing’s colleagues, despite the fact that there is no evidence the two men ever met at Bletchley Park or anywhere else. But when we’re this far adrift from history – Christ, who cares anyway?

Look, I’m not saying that director Morten Tyldum should have made a documentary instead. Artistic licence is fair enough, and when it comes to biopics, I’m usually the first to say – more story and less Wikipedia-style recitation of facts please. One of the few scenes with any power at all is the dramatisation of the so-called Coventry Conundrum. In the movie, almost as soon as the first communications are successfully decrypted, our team of puzzlers can see from the positions of German U-boats that an Allied passenger convoy is in danger of attack. Before they can call this information in so that a warning can be issued, Turing stops them – pointing out that being able to break the enemy’s code is only valuable so long as they don’t know you’re doing it. Now, obviously, far more time would elapse before this dilemma was faced, and obviously decisions like this would be taken at a much higher level, but I don’t object to a movie condensing time and place and character like this, if the essential truth of the story is maintained (or, I suppose, if the false story is a helluvalot better than reality). This scene only dies a death ultimately because of the crass decision to have the youngest member of the team realise that – in a stunning coincidence – his brother is on that convoy, and start to blub. And thus a vital insight into the role of the code-breakers is reduced to maudlin and unlikely soap opera.

So I will take The Imitation Game to task for its lack of historical veracity, not because historical veracity is inherently a good thing, but because in this case the truth is far more interesting than the superficial nonsense paraded before us here. The film would have us believe that cracking the Enigma code was the work of one man, who in turn outsourced it to a prodigious machine which was the forerunner of the modern computer, and that the code when cracked required nothing more than the mechanical operation of the said computer. In fact, continuing to be able to interpret German messages was a laborious and on-going process which continued throughout the war, aided by Turing’s “bombe” machine (which he never called “Christopher” for fuck’s sake) and by other similar machines, including the Colossus which was the forerunner of the modern computer, but which Turing had nothing to do with.

The film would also have us believe that one genius was able to crack the Enigma machine, but actually in most respects the Enigma is a near-perfect encryption device, if used properly. The story of the defeat of Enigma is actually a rather more human story of operator error. Had the Germans been more aware of cryptanalysis, better trained or more disciplined, Bletchley Park would likely not have succeeded in deciphering their messages, machine or no machine. And that’s before we stop to acknowledge the Allied spies who managed to get a working Enigma machine back to Britain, without which Turing and co would simply have not known where to begin.

But none of this is of interest to Tyldum, Moore and co, who refuse to engage in any meaningful way with what Turing and co were actually doing, who let repeated platitudes sit where a theme should be, test our patience with five montage sequences (all on-the-cheap CGI unwisely mixed it with grainy newsreel footage), drown the worst of the dialogue with Alexandre Desplat’s sickly generic music, hope that the charm of the cast and their ersatz Richard Curtis-esque glib one-liners will carry us over the finish line, and if not, there’s always the sombre note of historical significance to give it a light seasoning of faux-profundity. How we laughed all the way to Awards Season. At this point I can’t even be bothered to be annoyed at the fact that the young cast don’t know how to pronounce “Euler” (possibly forgivable) or “ensign” (have they never watched Star Trek?), or that Turing’s school mathematics teacher stops in mid-proof (virtually mid-sentence) for the end, not just of the school day, but of the term.

The film can’t bring itself to depict Turing’s suicide, although Turing giving his team apples may be an allusion to his probable method of despatch. This scene is possibly the most outright ridiculous, where Turing – like an alien in a bad episode of Star Trek – asks Joan “what is ‘friend’?” and after she tries to explain, he awkwardly brings everyone apples and tells them a sort-of joke. Then they all stop despising and resenting him and start sticking up for him instead. Like you would. And we end with a reminder that Turing was pardoned in 2013 – a well-meaning gesture which had the unfortunate consequence of tacitly endorsing the thousands of other prosecutions for homosexuality in Britain.

Quite what the bloody hell this slack, lazy, syrupy, nonsensical farce of a movie is doing earning a nomination for Best Picture is anyone’s guess, but the nominations for Best Director and in particular Best Adapted Screenplay are completely ridiculous. The attempt to try and tie together Turing’s private life, mathematical game-playing, success as a cryptographer, philosophiser of mind and father of modern computing, while simultaneously devoting most of the running time to intrigue in Hut 8, was probably doomed to failure before it was even begun, even given that Breaking the Code had already done a pretty admirable job. Turing’s concept of a Universal Engine predated his work at Bletchely Park and the two have little to do with each other. His notion of the Turing Test, adapted from a party game called The Imitation Game, came after. This boring film has no room for either. It believes that it is comparing Turing’s keeping of secrets to The Imitation Game, but in the first place, this is an inapt comparison and in the second place, how could the naive audience member that the film is clearly aimed at be expected to work this out, given that the film never once tells us what The Imitation Game actually is.

Oscars 2015: Boyhood

Posted on February 4th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

boyhood

Boyhood is certainly the most distinctive film in this year’s Oscar line-up, and in a year which includes Birdman, that really is saying something. In many ways, the two movies are polar opposites. Iñárritu’s film appears to have been shot in a single take, lasting the running time of the movie (although in fact there are numerous hidden cuts). Linklater’s appears to have been (and in fact was) shot over an extended period, lasting the amount of story time covered in the movie. Iñárritu’s film is stylised, surreal and metaphysical. Linklater’s is grounded, mundane and realistic. That they are respectively the most-nominated movie and the favourite for Best Picture says a lot about what a bold slate the Academy has put forward this year, in this category at least.

Before I sat down, I had some misgivings about Boyhood. A feature film cannot hope to sustain interest on the strength of its quirky mode of production, after all, and American coming-of-age sagas are not things which I generally rush to embrace. It’s not as if countless American sit-coms haven’t already given us the experience of watching young actors mature into gawky adolescents dozens of times before. The success or failure of Boyhood will thus rest on how interesting the individual segments are, and how well they cohere into a narrative – not on the fascination I might have with the decade-plus production schedule nor simply murmuring “my haven’t you grown,” each time we skip a few more months.

Strikingly, almost the first thing we see our three central characters doing is moving house. The family (six year old Mason, his mother Olivia and sister Samantha) moves three or four more times over the coming years/minutes and this gives the film a restless quality, always moving forward and rarely looking back. Early on Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is the most engaging figure – quirky, precocious and funny. But she gradually cedes the film to Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who morphs from saucer-eyed little brother to shy pubescent to rangy, cynical young man while Mom (Patricia Arquette) tries to keep the family together.

Dropped into the mix is absent father Mason Snr (frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke) who initially seems like a pretty standard-issue deadbeat dad, but as future stepfathers will confirm, actually has a bit more compassion and smarts about him than first appears. Linklater is amazingly adept at picking out items of early-2000s technology which perfectly date the film without any need to explicitly mark the passing of time.

Of course, as the chapters go by, it becomes impossible to entirely forget about the mode of production, but as well as gaining the opportunity to see characters gradually mature and change without a sudden and jarring change in actor or inch-thick prosthetic make-up appliances, the nature of the shoot also dictates how the story will progress. The impossibility of keeping a large cast together means that whenever the Mason family moves, they almost always leave the entire supporting cast behind, never to be seen again. This is disappointing, since the opportunity to reintroduce forgotten characters, now transformed by the passage of time, would provide not only more structure but marvellously truthful moments, inaccessible to other films.

The gradually evolving screenplay also makes it hard for Linklater to plant elements which will pay-off later on, and this manifests itself in part in a reluctance to let the human drama become too dramatic. When Mason and his buddies are messing around with dangerous weapons, or when his step-grandparents give him a shotgun, we already know that there won’t be a fatal accident, because it isn’t that kind of movie. When Olivia’s second husband flings a whiskey glass across the room, it almost feels like a scene cut in from a more conventional melodrama.

The pay-off for this soap opera is all Linklater, however. Following Olivia’s desperate rescue mission to remove her kids from drunken Bill’s sadistic control, Mason complains bitterly about being sent to a new school rather than thanking her for her selfless bravery. And this is one of the things which elevates the movie. As well as most of the individual episodes being interesting enough to sustain the interest (while mundane enough to suit the tone), the issue of point-of-view is fascinating. Arguably, this is Olivia’s movie. Sure, Mason Snr also does some growing up, but mainly it’s the tale of how an aimless single Mom working a dead-end job and bickering with her ex about child support, grows to become a much-loved and well-respected psychology teacher with two grown up kids who adore her and no need for a man to define who she is. But we keep missing bits of this move because we at least mainly see it through Mason’s eyes, and so when she unexpectedly bursts into tears towards the end, we realise that we’ve only been on the edges of this story – and that’s really what childhood is like.

I have to be honest, though, I didn’t fall in love with Boyhood the way a lot of critics did. If you took the events of the film and wrote a novel instead, you’d have little more than a rather thin and uninteresting short story. Mason and his family are just barely individual enough to be interesting. Take away the fascination with watching the cast grow older and you do still end up with something which is frustratingly generic. A less “scorched earth” approach towards plotting might have helped, but as noted I think that may have been inevitable.

What remains however was almost never boring (only when Olivia’s third partner also turns out to be a drunk who is mean to her kids did I feel as if the movie was repeating itself), and so even if this isn’t one of those films I will keep going back to, I am certainly pleased to have seen it and delighted that Linklater and co were able to pull it off.

Oscars 2015: Selma

Posted on January 31st, 2015 in At the cinema | No Comments »

selma

After the recent cycle of American guilt-porn movies, and given the Academy’s predilection for lumpen biopics, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to Selma but I didn’t have much of a chance to right it off in advance as I saw it prior to its UK release courtesy of Odeon’s “Screen Unseen” series of surprise movies.

Whereas 12 Years a Slave was horrifyingly brutal but structurally flawed, and The Help was ultimately a bit too twee and winsome to really succeed as a cutting evocation of America’s troubled history of racial conflict, Selma being set barely half a century ago instantly feels far more relevant and the sickening violence in Ferguson and elsewhere gives it a grim modernity which its makers can’t have anticipated.

By sensibly focusing on a small period of time – the few weeks in 1964 between Martin Luther King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and the march from Selma to Montgomery – the movie avoids the shapelessness which dogs so many biopics, and early on director Ava DuVernay is in total control of the material, juxtaposing King in Oslo, the shocking murder by explosive of four young black girls and producer Oprah Winfrey’s neat cameo as would-be Selma voter Annie Lee Cooper, where she pulls of the neat trick of combining stoic dignity with aching vulnerability.

As the movie settles down and we meet the rest of the cast, DuVernay’s camerawork becomes a bit more pedestrian. A magnificent crane shot towards the end is eye-catching but a most of the rest is unshowy, simple and just intended to capture the performances. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but a movie ought to full the frame a bit more than a TV show and from time-to-time Selma does feel a bit movie-of-the-week, with a little too much slo-mo and a little too much omnipresent syrupy music from Jason Moran. I’m not saying DuVernay should have gone full Michael Bay on this, but a more dynamic camera would not have undermined the story at all.

Where she does succeed is in marshalling a terrific cast, and balancing the sub-plots with the main story. Without ever taking energy away from the central thread, we get glimpses into the lives of King’s loyal followers such as James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson); we see the uneasy relationship between the two young men already working in Selma for voting rights; we see the earnest white folks who rally to the cause, not all of whom make it out of Selma alive.

It helps that we get some familiar faces in this sprawling cast like Lorraine Toussaint, from HBO’s Orange is the New Black and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, because we’re not done yet. As well as the law enforcement on the ground in Selma, we also have a brilliantly reptilian turn from Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr and Martin Sheen, not to mention Carmen Ejogo who does a great deal with very little as King’s ever-patient wife.

There are a couple of loose threads. Dylan Baker appears in only about two scenes as J Edgar Hoover and irritating captions keep appearing which remind us that the FBI is spying on the Kings, while giving us further information we already know – but the FBI storyline never amounts to anything. Even more bizarrely, Nigel Thatch appears in exactly one scene as Malcolm X, is never seen to meet King and then dies off-screen.

Then main conflict then is between Tom Wilkinson’s rangy Lyndon B Johnson (fascinating to compare this performance with Bryan Cranston’s approach which I was privileged to see on Broadway last year) and David Oyelowo’s electrifying King. Pitting Johnson’s compassionate pragmatism against King’s fiery idealism is a fascinating dichotomy and the scenes between them are wonderfully handled. Being shamefully unfamiliar with the details of King’s story, I was struck by the shocking nature of his tactics – broadly to mount nonviolent protests in the hope that the other side will retaliate with violence. The movie is unafraid both to criticise this approach and also to consider the cost on King’s personal life as he knowingly puts young men and women into harm’s way in order to achieve a greater good, but ultimately it becomes clear that progress would be unlikely to be achieved in any other way.

Smartly surrounding him with a rich cast of supporting characters, DuVernay is nevertheless happy to let Oyelowo off the leash from time-to-time and my word does he tear up the part when he needs to. He is absolutely magnificent, embodying Dr King with fire and passion and integrity in a way which seems almost impossible for a British public school-boy to pull off. And a further hat-tip to DuVernay who is apparently responsible for writing new speeches for him to say, when the original Martin Luther King speeches were not available. That must have been a daunting project to say the least!

So, this is not the most ambitious film on the list, nor is it the most formally daring. But it is a compelling story, well-told, with a world-class performance at its centre and a deep pool of acting talent in support. That it was so widely overlooked by the Academy is absolutely baffling, particularly Oyelowo’s performance, and particularly the screenplay, if only for those astonishing speeches.

Oscars 2015: Whiplash

Posted on January 20th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

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Warning – this review contains some potential spoilers

There’s no denying that Whiplash is an extraordinary film. What’s most extraordinary about it is how very, very close to being ordinary it comes. Here’s the set-up. Music student and aspiring jazz drummer Miles Teller, newly enrolled at a prestigious (fictional) music academy in New York hopes to be and is talent-spotted by martinet band-leader and conductor JK Simmons. Through his sometimes brutal tutelage, Teller develops his talent, but suffers mightily in the process.

I have to say, this set-up, neatly laid out in the trailer, did not inspire me with confidence. This is pretty familiar stuff. The older man whose ruthless and sadistic game-playing (while simultaneously firing off zippy one-liners) ultimately leads the callow youngster he takes under his wing to a greater understanding and eventual a rapprochement between the two. Off the top of my head, I can think of Scent of a Woman, every episode of House MD, Full Metal Jacket (only with a different ending), House of Games, and many sports movies including Million Dollar Baby, Rocky and (sort-of) A League of Their Own. You can probably think of more. Plus Shine sets the bar pretty high for musicians-who-push-themselves-to-breaking-point movies for me.

But if we must have another entry in the collection of demented mentor figures, let us at least have one played by JK Simmons who seizes the material with delirious glee – with a lesser actor in this key role, the whole thing might fall apart. He shifts effortlessly from laconic encouragement to full-on physical abuse, constantly keeping his young protégée off-balance, while continuing to manipulate, encourage and punish him to greatness. Teller, likewise, holds up his end of the bargain, giving poor Andrew just enough steel that we continue to root for him, and enough vulnerability that we fear he might fail. Teller’s Brat Pack good looks allow him to be laser-focused on his goal without losing too much audience sympathy. It’s a good job in a much less showy acting role, although his contortions behind the drum kit are amazing to behold.

But to understand what makes this film so extraordinary, it is necessary to consider (pace Julian Barnes) all the things which writer-director Damien Chazelle did not do. Anyone who has heard the set-up or seen the trailer will understand that the main conflict will be between charismatic but possibly loopy teacher and talented but possibly too feeble student and that the interest lies in seeing how each deals with the other, and who will end up on top.

Plenty of films would have built up at least one, if not both characters, before they first meet. They would show us Teller’s first day at school, establish his desire to be one of the great jazz drummers, clue us in on this school works, what power JK Simmons has (maybe his reputation precedes him), what competitions his band will enter and what the rewards are for doing well in them, and ease us into the story. Whiplash has no truck with any of that. Seconds after the company logos are off the screen, we get the two men’s first meeting, and already Simmons is playing mind-games with Teller. This is what you came for? Well, here it is, front and centre.

This ruthless efficiency certainly smacks of confidence in the material and the cast, and it largely pays off. There’s a pleasing lack of pedantry which, especially after the clunking Theory of Everything, is very refreshing. He picks the players. They play in competitions. It’s important. You got that? Okay, we can move on. But what’s also fascinating is that the nature of their interaction all centres on technical ability. Just like in a sports movie, Teller pushes his body beyond what it can bear, plunging bloody hands into ice water and then picking up the drumsticks again. But whereas you will hear the dread passive-aggressive phrase “Not quite my tempo” from Simmons’ terrifying conductor more than once, you hear hardly anything about the music and nothing about soul or inspiration.

You don’t even hear anything about improvisation, and this is a movie about jazz! The expected conflict between technical proficiency and playing from your heart simply fails to materialise. Good is good if Simmons says it is. It’s like being able to jump high or run fast or bowl a 300 game. When you can do it, everybody knows it. Okay then. And yet, the music itself belies that. Justin Hurwitz does an amazing job with the (entirely diagetic) score and Chazelle shoots the shit out of the practising, rehearsing and playing sequences which are edited with razor-accuracy by Tom Cross.

But while this lean approach pays dividends (the supporting cast is pared to the bone too – none of the other band-members really register, Paul Reiser is in maybe four scenes as Teller’s pleasingly rumpled Dad, and Teller gets a girlfriend only to dump her immediately to focus on drumming) it also has drawbacks. Finding the shapes so familiar, even though I was enjoying the bright colours used to fill them in, I pretty quickly constructed a road-map of the movie in my head, right the way up to the eccentric mentor’s eventual humbling followed by his little speech of self-justification.

However, removing all unnecessary material means the films burns through story pretty quickly and so we reached that point only around 70 minutes in. It’s in its final act – not so much a plot twist as an elegant narrative curlicue – that the movie finally did what I think it had been trying to do all along: it surprised me.

This is fine film-making, a little less adventurous in its construction than maybe its writer-director would like to admit, but rooted enough to feel real, brash enough to feel arresting and shot with real verve and brio. I somehow doubt it will last the ages, but it’s tight, exciting and grown-up cinema.

Black marks to my local Odeon (Camden) who allowed me to book online and pick my seats in their spacious, but misshapen Screen 1, and then without notice moved the film to their broom closet of a Screen 4 and stuck me in the back row, far left. However, kudos for politely and promptly refunding my money when I complained.

Oscars 2015: here are the runners and riders

Posted on January 19th, 2015 in At the cinema | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars!

If you’ve any interest in cinema, you’ll probably have noticed that in the year of a major Martin Luther King biopic, Academy voters have delivered the least diverse slate of nominees anyone can remember. Every single one of the twenty acting nominees is white and every single director is a white man (okay, one is Mexican and one is Norwegian) and all of the 15 writing nominees are men. Given that the nominees (and indeed the winners) are decided upon by a secret ballot, there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do about this, but there do seem to be some pretty startling omissions, and Selma’s failure to get anything beyond Best Picture and Best Original Song (which somehow makes it worse) is chief among these.

Anyway, for new readers of this blog (because my delusion of readership is such that I find it necessary to subdivide my armies of followers into categories instead of, say, counting them on the fingers of a pair of mittens), every year I attempt to ensure that I have seen all the Best Picture Nominees before the Oscars ceremony itself. I first attempted this feat in 2010 (also the first year the Academy decided to nominate ten films instead of five) but couldn’t bring myself to sit through The Blind Side. I’ve not missed a movie since.

They now nominate between five and ten depending on how the voting goes and this year the total is eight, with Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel sharing the most nominations with nine each, although Boyhood is the bookies’ favourite to win the big one, despite having only six nominations in total. Even this list is overwhelmingly male and only Selma has a squeak of racial diversity about it. Every Best Picture nominee has a male protagonist and only one, The Theory of Everything, has a real female second lead (I guess you could make an argument for American Sniper or The Imitation Game). Look at the nominees for Best Actress – only Felicity Jones is nominated for starring in a film also nominated for Best Picture despite the fact that there are eight Best Picture nominees and only five Best Actress nominees!

This depressing trend aside, it’s not a bad list, although not a great one either, and at the time of writing, I have seen half of them, so watching the remaining four in the next month should be pretty easy. Here’s a quick list, with my preconceptions, review or a link to my review as appropriate.

American Sniper
w. Jason Hall (nominated), book Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice; d. Clint Eastwood
Bradley Cooper (nominated), Sienna Miller

This has had some pretty poisonous press from the liberal media (i.e. people like me) so I’m not really looking forward to it. I don’t know an awful lot about it, but Eastwood is certainly capable of shooting humane and tasteful movies, so it remains to be seen whether this is sanctimonious gun-loving or a clear-eyed look at warfare or something in between. Also nominated for editing, sound mixing and sound editing, but not Eastwood for director. Just outside contention for the big prize I suspect.

Birdman

w. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Armando Bo (nominated); d. Iñárritu
Michael Keaton (nominated), Edward Norton (nominated), Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone (nominated)

Marvellous, original stuff with terrific performances all-round, that manages to play games with reality while respecting the audience’s need for some kind of narrative through-line. My full review is here. Must be in contention for the sheer number of nominations (Keaton alas will be crushed under Eddie Redmayne’s wheelchair) but surely it won’t win?

Boyhood

w. Richard Linklater (nominated); d. Linklater (nominated)
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette (nominated), Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke (nominated)

Linklater follows up his, apparently on-going, After series with this extraordinary experiment in film-making, shot over twelve years. My question going in is – with limited ability to plot out the storyline in advance, will the incidents which make up the material of the film be interesting enough to justify the extraordinary commitment which went into making it? Heavy favourite to win, probably on that basis alone, but Linklater has strong competition for director in the form of Iñárritu and possibly Wes Anderson too.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

w. Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (nominated); d. Anderson (nominated)
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Almaric, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe

Marvellous ornate fantasy, very much in its director’s signature style, but with a bit more narrative drive and graced with a sublimely deft turn from Ralph Fiennes. Who knew he had such a lightness of touch? Certainly no-one who sat through his brittle performance as John Steed in the ghastly Avengers movie (not that one). I saw this and loved it when it was first released last February and failed to review it, but it’s terrific fun, it’s story-within-story-within-story puzzle-box structure allowing it licence to play far more fast-and-loose with logic and reality without the whole edifice collapsing under the weight of its own whimsy. Again, were it not for the sheer number of nominations, I would say it had no chance at all, but with nine, and that eleven months after its first release, it must be in with a shout, surely.

The Imitation Game

w. Graham Moore (nominated), book Andrew Hodges; d. Morten Tyldum (nominated)
Benedict Cumberbatch (nominated), Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley (nominated), Mark Strong, Charles Dance

The other crippled genius biopic, but Turing’s stammer and homosexuality may pale next to motor neurone disease and a tracheotomy. Still, Turing was trying to end a war, rather than ponder the rather more abstract mysteries which occupied Hawking’s mind. I haven’t seen it yet, but advance word is that’s rather soapy and I feel it’s unlikely to compare well to the BBC film Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi. Very much in the also-ran category for Best Picture, but might just nick screenplay if it’s very lucky.

Selma

w. Paul Webb; d. Ava DuVernay
David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Common, Wendell Pierce, Andre Holland

This one almost flew under my personal radar. I had expected to see Foxcatcher, Big Eyes, Mr Turner, Wild and The Gambler on this list, but almost failed to notice Selma sneaking under the wire. Maybe being released so close to the deadline hurt it? Or maybe it’s all those British actors in the cast, but for chrissake, if you can’t get an Oscar nomination for playing Martin Luther King, then you wonder why you bothered trying to master the accent at all. Is it any good? I’ll let you know in a few weeks’ time. Obviously has no chance at all at winning Best Picture unless the Academy voters are suddenly seized by white guilt (which I suppose is not impossible, but I’m still picking Boyhood at our sweepstake).

The Theory of Everything

w. Anthony McCarten (nominated), book Jane Wilde Hawking; d. James Marsh
Eddie Redmayne (nominated), Felicity Jones (nominated), Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis

Hugely disappointing, a ball-less and bland script squandering an awesome leading performance by Redmayne who will surely win, but it’s very unlikely to walk away with anything else.

Whiplash

wd. Damien Chazelle
Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Another one which nearly slipped past me and the trailer made me fear the worst. I saw it last night and I will put my review in the next post.

A quick account of the other major categories. Best film, as noted, will be Boyhood, with best director a straight fight between Anderson, Inarritu and Linklater. Foxcatcher will likely get nothing, ditto Selma. Julianne Moore is probably favourite for Best Actress, with only Reese Witherspoon needing to bother writing a speech. In the supporting categories, things are a bit more open, as they often are. Both Edward Norton and JK Simmons have strong claims on the male side, while on the female side Patricia Arquette and Laura Dern seem to have the best chance, but it’s never wise to right-off Meryl Streep. Original screenplay I imagine will go to Birdman, although Boyhood and Budapest both have a shot. Adapted screenplay is a bit harder to call. Whiplash probably has the best chance at the moment.

My review of Whiplash will be here later today or tomorrow.

Pre-Oscar round-up – Birdman, The Hobbit, The Theory of Everything

Posted on January 9th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

The Oscars are almost upon us. The BAFTA nominations were announced yesterday, the Golden Globes are on Sunday and the cinemas are full of beautifully framed suffering and gurning, which will shortly give way to the usual fare of explosions and solid jawlines.

In the last week I’ve crammed in three movies, at least of two of which I confidently expect to see in the Best Picture nominees come 15 January, all three of which I shall review here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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After the slightly tedious An Unexpected Journey and the unexpectedly elegant and engaging The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s sixth and final Middle Earth film is a rather ho-hum affair. Beginning almost immediately where the previous film left off (almost as if the material had been shot without anyone imagining there would a break of a year in between), the focus is all on Luke Evans’ anodyne Bard the Bowman who proceeds to almost immediately slay the fiery Smaug in exactly the way he said he would.

This brutally efficient, by-the-numbers style is the watchword for most of the film. After Gandalf is finally released from his “holding pattern” at Dol Guldur and after sufficient chat to bulk the thing up to a reasonable running time, the titular battle finally gets underway. Bonkers dwarf-king Billy Connolly is a bit of a treat and Richard Armitage’s mano-a-mano show-down with Azog works well, but the gigantic battle scenes contribute nothing we haven’t seen before and crucially none of the character drama really resonates, with Thorin’s re-emergence from “dragon sickness” disposed of in a few minutes with little more than a CGI pool of gold and a furrowed brow.

What’s particular disappointing is how little Martin Freeman gets to do. His performance was the saving grace of part one, the heart and soul of part two and his side-lining in the climactic instalment leaves the film without a happy centre. Still, I’d rather be him than, say, James Nesbitt who I swear gets two lines in the whole thing. A bit more Freeman and a lot less clumsy comic relief from Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle would have gone a long way.

Birdman

and-the-oscar-goes-to-could-birdman-be-the-first-superhero-movie-nominated-for-best-picture

One of the most bracing and exciting films I’ve seen in a very long time, Birdman deserves all the praise which is being heaped upon it. In a neat bit of self-referential casting, Michael Keaton leads as Riggan Thompson, Hollywood actor once well-known for his starring role in a series of extravagant super-hero movies, now attempting to show snooty Broadway theatre-goers that he is still relevant, talented and vital with a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of a (real) Raymond Carver story starring himself.

He is joined on-stage by his girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, a Broadway first-timer (Naomi Watts) and volatile supposed genius Ed Norton, gleefully following in Dustin Hoffman’s footsteps by playing up to his reputation as a difficult and demanding star. What sets this tale of desperation and personal need for fulfilment apart from the crowd is its casual attitude towards reality and the innovative shooting style deployed by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (that’s easy for you to say). Riggan is haunted by the voice of his musclebound alter-ego and appears to be able to – or believes himself to be able to – or fantasies that he is able to – alter reality with a single thought. Our first shot of him is floating in mid-air in the lotus position. He later apparently causes a light to fall on a recalcitrant fellow actor and later visits all manner of physical impossibilities on himself and objects around him.

While we watch these fantastic actors explore these great characters in this pressure cooker situation (I haven’t even mentioned brilliantly restrained Zach Galifianakis, an ice cold turn from Lindsay Duncan and a delightful cameo from Amy Ryan), Iñárritu’s camera swoops and circles and darts and dollies and never, ever (apparently) cuts.

The discipline of shooting the entire movie in a single take (although not in continuous time) makes it even harder to be certain about what is real and what is not, but this carefully calibrated ambiguity locates us inside Riggan’s head, as the camera crawls over Keaton’s panicky face, its sharp Batman contours now crinkled with a network of fine lines.

It’s not a perfect movie. I’ve had about enough of the cliché of real-acting-is-doing-it-for-real so when Norton starts drinking real gin on stage I rolled my eyes a bit – although, to be fair this is certainly on-theme. What’s much less satisfactory is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter who adds very little to proceedings, and when she and Norton start playing Truth or Dare on a balcony, the whole movie suddenly descends into after school special faux-profundity.

For the rest of its running time, however, the film remains bracingly original, constantly kept me guessing and even managed to pull off an obscure ending which doesn’t seem like a cop-out (it also includes a wonderful visual pun). Hardly stands a chance of getting the big prize, but surely it must be nominated – unlike the amazing percussion score by Antonio Sánchez which the Academy won’t even consider on the entirely spurious basis that the movie also includes some classical music.

The Theory of Everything

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I don’t really like biopics. They’re very, very hard to pull off. Most non-biopic movies cover relatively short spans of time and those that attempt to work over longer periods need a great deal of discipline to find a central theme and hang on to it. When you are telling a true story of somebody’s life, there’s an apparent need not to leave anything out, so most biopics go from cradle to grave, with the result that we whip through key incidents and the overall effect is like reading a Wikipedia entry rather than being caught up in the reality of somebody’s life. Chaplin is possibly the worst example of this tendancy, The Social Network a particularly elegant way around the problem.

The Theory of Everything is blessed with an absolutely outstanding performance by Eddie Redmayne. Physically contorting himself like no other actor since Daniel Day-Lewis, he doesn’t so much impersonate Hawking as possess him. It’s sensitive, compassionate, funny, detailed, heartfelt and will surely win him Best Actor this year. It’s also a performance which the rest of the movie entirely squanders.

Telling the story of Hawking’s life means tackling at least three different narratives. The brilliant mind grappling with impossible problems of reality; the love story between young academics who don’t expect their marriage to last more than a few years; and the triumph-over-adversity story of a vital young man suddenly crippled by a life-threatening illness. It’s hard to pick just one of these and so my hope going in was that scriptwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh would find a way of braiding these strands together which would somehow elevate all three of them.

In practice, the first story is all but ignored. There is maybe two minutes of science in the whole thing, most hilariously when a troupe of Cambridge post-graduates make a road trip to hear Christian McKay’s Roger Penrose deliver a lecture which would be elementary to a GCSE physics class, based on the thirty seconds we are allowed to hear. The life-threatening illness, brilliantly realised by Redmayne, is often the main focus but this is the least interesting strand being over-familiar in general from many, many similar movies and TV movies prior to this, but also because the details of Hawking’s condition are so well known.

And so, the love story forms the bulk of the movie, which is when the frantic skipping from scene to scene does the movie so few favours. Everything is trivial, glib, tick that box and move on. Why do we have to hear about Hawking bluffing his way through his viva at Oxford instead of taking the time to let that scene play out? Why do we jump from his first date with Jane to their wedding in the space of about ten minutes? Why do we never get a sense of who these two people are to each other, let alone as a couple? Hawking’s family is drawn efficiently and vividly, thanks in part to a lovely turn by Simon McBurney as his dad, but elsewhere the writer seems to be hoping that the cast will fill in the gaps and the cast seem to be hoping that the editing will fill in the gaps and the director seems to be hoping that enough stirring music will see him through.

How is it that a single film manages to be simultaneously so pedantic and yet also so coy? When we need to introduce possible cuckoo-in-the-nest Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox, instantly forgettable), we can’t just show him giving piano lessons to one of the Hawking offspring, we first have to wheel in Emily Watson as Jane’s mum to laboriously explain to her that singing in the church choir is a Good Idea, then we have to have Jane creep mouse-like into the church just as the singing practice is conveniently finishing, then we have to have a lumpen conversation between the two of them – and so we exchange one telling, detailed, measured scene which would bring verisimilitude and texture to the story for three box-ticking snippets instead.

And yet at the same time, the film keeps eliding what’s actually interesting. The Hawkings’ sex life is included only by having Stephen and Jane embrace and then a cut to Eddie Redmayne cuddling a baby – not once but three times. And the potentially fascinating debates about the role of God in the universe are reduced to two quick mentions and one dinner table conversation in which C of E Jane is largely side-lined. That’s the other major problem with this film. Based on a book by Jane Hawking, it fails to realise that the story can’t be what is it like to be Stephen Hawking?, that’s largely unknowable in any case. But it could be what is it like to be married to Stephen Hawking? except that the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to cut away from their big-ticket item, the floppy haired one in the wheel-chair.

One particularly striking example is the diagnosis sequence. Hawking stumbles in the college quad, is taken to hospital where they perform a variety of tests and the young man is given his grim diagnosis. He returns to Cambridge and breaks the news to his bunk-mate Brian but when his then-girlfriend Jane tries to see him he refuses to talk to her. She is eventually given the news by Brian in a pub (we are not permitted to hear the dialogue).

But whose story is this? By never tackling this question, the movie is only ever able to give us the animated Wikipedia version, while steadfastly ignoring the colossally obvious point that every single fucking movie-goer is going to know the diagnosis before the characters do. If they had had the wit, the perspicacity – the fucking balls – to realise that this was Jane’s story, the whole sequence could have been played from her point of view. Her boyfriend has a mysterious fall in the quad but instead of just being patched up by the college nurse, he is taken away in an ambulance. In this pre-mobile phone age, she can’t get any information from the hospital, no matter how often she calls from the payphone at the bottom of her staircase. When Stephen eventually returns, apparently fit and healthy, he barricades himself in his room and refuses to talk to her. Imagine the confusion, the horror, the anger – and of course the ghastly dramatic irony because we, the audience, know all too well what’s coming.

What compounds all of these structural problems is just how fucking saintly everybody is. Hawking is unfailingly charming, funny, self-effacing and good natured – with the aforementioned brief strop the only moment where his disposition is anything less than sunny. Felicity Jones’s doe-eyed Jane is warm, supportive, patient, wise and deadeningly sincere, only leaving Hawking when he’s found flirty Maxine Peake to pal about with instead, and Charlie Cox’s Jonathan is essentially a tweedy martyr, tediously putting everyone else’s feelings ahead of his own. Where’s the vinegar? Where’s the tension? Where, for pity’s sake is the story?

At the fairly full cinema we saw this in, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a damp eye in the house. When a film dealing with a wheelchair bound genius whose marriage is falling apart can’t even be bothered to be mawkishly sentimental, let alone attain any real insight, power or emotion, you know it’s really in trouble. Lazy, boring and trite, if it were not for Eddie Redmayne, this would have been utterly ghastly. As it is, it’s just dull.