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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Oscars 2014 – 12 Days a Slave

Posted on January 27th, 2014 in At the cinema | 5 Comments »

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I haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s earlier efforts, Hunger (which friends of mine hated) and Shame (which friends of mine loved) and as noted in my earlier post, I was a little wary of guilt porn here. It’s not that the brutal horrors of the American slave trade need not be recreated on film, it’s more a question of what can McQueen add to what has been depicted already. Slim Pickens opting to save a handcart from quicksand but leaving his slaves to their doom in Blazing Saddles is shocking and funny, but Blazing Saddles was a long time ago.

The recent cycle of Hollywood movies examining America’s racist past has so failed to produce a major movie which wasn’t either twee (The Help), focused only on politics (Lincoln) or simply demented (Django Unchained) so there is maybe a need for a movie like this, just as there was, arguably, a need for Schindler’s List to be made, which almost trumps any conversation about the film’s actual merits as a piece of cinema.

Well, I don’t really think I’m sticking my neck out too far when I say that broadly speaking I think slavery was A Bad Thing and so I’m not surprised to have left the cinema sickened and horrified by the brutalisation of those poor unfortunate wretches who found themselves owned by other humans. But overall, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling that this was a magnificent piece of film-making. Important, yes. Necessary, possibly. Deeply felt, almost certainly. But free of flaw? That’s another matter.

The story, just in case you didn’t know, concerns one Solomon Northup, living as a free man in Saratoga, New York, who unwisely accepts the invitation of a couple of white strangers to come and play violin with them in Washington (where slavery is still legal). After imbibing a Mickey Finn, he comes to in chains, and is told that his name is now Platt and that he is free no longer. He is passed from owner to owner until, well, the title of the film kind of spoils the ending.

As might be expected, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit compose the shots wonderfully, holding on certain images for much longer than might be expected which gives them a stark beauty, even if what is being depicted is horrendously inhumane. And McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley assemble any number of individual scenes of tremendous power – the slave trader touting his wares, the plantation owner’s wife who hurls a decanter at the comely young slave woman who is her husband’s favourite, Northup desperately lying his way out of trouble at knife-point when his letters to his wife and children are discovered, and most shockingly of all, Northup forced to whip another slave to the point of death. Guilt porn? Maybe just a little, but McQueen’s camera – neither cold, dispassionate observer like Michael Hanneke’s, nor soaringly emotive like Spielberg’s – makes you feel every horrible lash.

However, where the filmmakers stumble is in their failure to successfully link individual scenes together to make arresting sequences. This is a film full of unnecessary stops-and-starts, with far too many one-or-two scene guest stars (Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Michael K Williams, Sal off of Mad Men) breaking up the flow. Almost no element of the story carries over from one scene to the next, and several key moments are robbed of their power, either because the context is missing, or in one case, the bizarre choice to show that moment as a very early flash-forward before the film has really got going.

It’s also striking to me that, in common with Schindler’s List, McQueen has chosen a very particular, very unusual slave story to tell, just as Spielberg didn’t want to tell a tale of everyday ordinary Auschwitz folk. Oskar Schindler’s perspective on the Nazi holocaust is utterly unique and the moral calculus which he performs gives a very specific lens through which to view the terrors of the Final Solution. In theory, Northup’s position does the same. Although many free black man and women were kidnapped by the slave trade, almost none escaped to tell the tale, and so Northup’s story is very unusual, and he also makes an excellent viewpoint character. How much easier for McQueen’s affluent, free audience to identify with a man who had everything they had but had it snatched away?

And yet the demands of the plot mean that we only very occasionally get this perspective. Northup is told early on – tell no-one who you really are, tell no-one you can read and write – and so most of the time, he looks and sounds like all the other slaves and this opportunity for a new vantage point is at the very least muted. That’s why it is so frustrating to see his early attempts at writing a letter thrown away as an unnecessary throw-forward. It’s also striking that his eventual release is dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner, in the last few minutes of the film, and his reunion with his family and rehabilitation after the agonies he has suffered provide none of the expected catharsis.

So, why is this and why does nobody else care? Well, there’s a perception that a well-crafted screenplay with neat set-ups and payoffs is formulaic or cheating. This I think is very far from the truth. Obviously, such a thing can be done badly and when the plot gears grind too loudly, one can no longer believe in the events depicted. But even to do this badly takes a lot more effort than what has apparently been done here – make a list of the noteworthy events in Northup’s 12 years’ incarceration and then run them in sequence until he is released. But maybe this stop-start, never building, never crescendoing quality is deliberate? Either to make the film seem more important, or to make it seem more authentic, or to give it the grinding, never-ending, soul-crushing feeling of a life in servitude.

None of these seem to me to be defensible positions. The Shawshank Redemption, for example, free of the perceived need to tell an important story about a terrible human tragedy manages to be authentically relentless, and well-structured, and even to include moments of grace and beauty which Slave can’t or won’t. And it’s not like writing the script didn’t involve making a thousand creative decisions about what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what to overlook and how to paper over the gaps in Northup’s account. All of these choices certainly have been made – this is not a documentary and it certainly doesn’t suffer from walking Wikipedia entry syndrome like say, Behind the Candelabra.

Thankfully, this shortcoming ultimately does very little to undermine what is essentially a very fine piece of film-making. The performances are excellent throughout, with especial praise going to Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who I think must now be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress for her heart-rending turn as the luckless Patsey. But it’s on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sturdy shoulders that the whole enterprise rests and he is nothing short of magnificent. When McQueen’s camera hangs on his face, impassive and yet hauntingly expressive, he is able to take the disparate bits and pieces of Northup’s life and somehow braid them together in the way he stares at the horizon. In those moments, the film achieves an almost terrible beauty and an almost unbearable sadness.

Edited 2/2/14 to correct some errors of fact and poor phrasing picked up by commenters – thank you.

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Potato Curry

Posted on January 22nd, 2014 in recipes | No Comments »

As part of my now-annual January abstemiousness, I thought a potato curry might make a filling but low-calorie supper. Despite the fact that I was largely improvising with whatever I happened to have on hand, it came out rather well.

Potato Curry - leftovers

Sorry, the only shot I have is of the left-overs!

 Ingredients

  • 500g new potatoes
  • Half head of cauliflower
  • One can chickpeas
  • Two medium onions
  • 100g low-fat natural yoghurt
  • 125g spinach
  • 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • Four cloves garlic
  • One thumb-sized piece of ginger
  • One green chilli
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp medium curry powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • Peanut oil for frying

Cut the potatoes in 2cm pieces, separate the cauliflower into florets, slice the onion and measure out the spices. Note – the spices are what I had on hand, and I’m well aware that the garam masala and curry powder contain some of the other spices, but this came out so well, I wanted to record this particular combination.

Heat the oil in a wok and gently fry the onion until soft, about 6-7 minutes. While it fries, mince the garlic, ginger and chilli, and add them to the pan once the onions soften. After about another minute, add the spices, mixing well.

Add the potatoes to the spicy onions and mix well, coating the potatoes in the spice. Then do the same with the cauliflower. Finally, add the chickpeas, including their water, and the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 25 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through and the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Dollop in the yoghurt and combine. Check the seasoning.

Finally add the spinach and turn down the heat. Stir the spinach into the curry, letting the heat of the mixture cook it and wilt it down.

Serves four with rice. About 300 calories per portion (curry only).

If you want it vegetarian, use vegetable stock (I used chicken stock). If you want it vegan, omit the yoghurt. This is quite a mild curry. If you want it hotter, throw in another fresh green chili or some dried chillies along with the other spices.

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Oscars 2014

Posted on January 18th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

It’s Oscar time again. Ladies and gentlemen here are the runners and riders…

The ones I’ve seen already…

Gravity

Tying with American Hustle for most nominations (ten, one more than 12 Years A Slave) it’s perhaps a little surprising to see this getting quite so much Academy love. Pared-back and innovatively-shot it may be, but it’s still essentially a blockbuster thrill-ride at its core. What’s even more surprising is that it hasn’t been overlooked in the “big six” department. Alfonso Cuarón is nominated for Best Director as is Sandra Bullock for Best Actress. To be honest, I don’t think it has much of a chance in any of these categories, except possibly Best Picture ironically. I wouldn’t give myself odds of better than 4-1 but since Paddy Power was offering 12-1 I’ve put a tenner on it. My full review is here.

Captain Phillips

Another one-person-against-the-odds movie (Robert Redford’s All is Lost didn’t get a nod), Paul Greengrass makes a huge virtue of his lean, documentary shooting style and Tom Hanks makes an appealingly unsympathetic hero – although his real-life crew insist that the real guy was even a bigger asshole – but what knocked me out is the total collapse of the Captain Phillips character when the ordeal is over. Tom Hanks’ raw, authentic, bewildered inability to cope with his recent experience is some of the very best screen acting I have ever seen and his failure to be nominated is utterly confounding – especially when antagonist Barkhad Abdi has got a nod for Best Supporting Actor. This is not to take anything away from Abdi’s performance which is very fine, but Hanks’ snub would be easier to understand if the Academy had failed to notice any of the acting in the movie. Anyway, this won’t win the big prize.

Philomena

A delightful, personal, and very moving film showcasing a completely different side of Steve Coogan, who abandons Partridge-style mugging completely to carve out a much more detailed and intimate portrait of a journalist whose compassionate zeal never tips the story into mawkish sentimentality. In fact the whole film pulls off a very delicate balancing act between humour, soap opera, detective story and politics. The detective story is the loser, but it’s by far the least interesting and necessary component. Judi Dench also gets yet another acting nomination. Nothing for Coogan as actor (which would have been surprising but not wholly undeserved) but the screenplay gets a hat-tip.

Nebraska

Alexander Payne continues an extraordinary run beginning (for me at least) with the brilliantly spiky Election, continued with the more subdued but still excellent About Schmidt, the splendidly freewheeling Sideways and the truly marvellous The Descendents which readers may recall I favoured over eventual Best Picture winner The Artist. Nebraska is a very, very simple story. In fact my only real criticism is how noisily the plot gears were grinding in the first twenty minutes to achieve its fairly straightforward set-up, viz – septuagenarian Woody Grant mistakenly believing himself to have won a million bucks in a sweepstake stops off in his old home town en route to collect his winnings.

As soon as we arrive in Hawthorne, however, we are off to the races as Woody reunites with old friends, family and rivals, most of whom are eager to get their hands on his new-found dough. Accompanied by his son (SNL’s Will Forte – a revelation), and eventually his wife (June Squibb, delightful) and brother (Bob Odenkirk), Woody drifts through much of the movie in somewhat of a senior daze, but this lack of desperate questing serves to give the rest of the movie time to settle. Much of the dialogue is peppered with one-liners, but nothing ever seems forced, except possibly the final pay-off which is just a little too neat.

Immaculately shot in cool, grainy black-and-white, this is a real treat and it’s great to see “little” movies like this and Philomena getting the Academy’s attention as well as the big spectaculars, all-star casts and “important” movies – see below.

The ones I haven’t seen yet…

American Hustle

A strong contender in the three horse race for Best Picture, only a year after Silver Linings Playbook, director David O Russell assembles much of the same cast and gets them nominated in all four acting categories again. I was dissatisfied with Silver Linings because I felt the ending sold the characters down the river. Early reports of this suggest that the plotting also goes awry towards the end, but we’ll see. Like Argo, this could make it if the Academy finds Gravity too frivolous and 12 Years A Slave too self-important.

Dallas Buyers Club

This is the one I know the least about. Part of the recent rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey which began with 2012’s rather unsatisfactory The Paperboy, it also stars Jared Leto as a transgender character and follows the tale of a drug smuggler – not cocaine but untested HIV pharmaceuticals. It’s released in the UK on 7 February so look out for a full review some time after that date.

Her

One of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard for a movie, grinding through the unproductive furrow of the wretched S1m0ne, and the absurd Electric Dreams as well as the ghastly AI and the limp Bicentennial Man. I didn’t see Robot and Frank so maybe that was better. On the other hand, this is Spike Jonze who can usually relied on to be interesting, so let’s give it a whirl. It’s released here, appropriately enough on Valentine’s Day.

The Wolf of Wall Street

I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a Martin Scorsese movie this much. I couldn’t get on board with The Departed which began by examining the mirror-image moral conundrums faced by a cop-turned-mobster and a mobster-turned-cop, then turned the movie over to Jack Nicholson who proceeded to Nicholson all over the middle third. After his character’s demise, the afore-mentioned moral conundrum is entirely lost in a welter of gunfire and bodies hitting the decks. It scarcely seems to matter what moral choices any of these characters make, today everybody dies. Completely pointless in my view. Shutter Island was diverting but ultimately a rather empty puzzle-box picture, and Hugo was very disappointing (full review here). This, on the other hand, seems to have a much clearer direction to head in, a crackerjack cast and – hey! – jokes! I doubt it will sweep the board though, in what is looking like a pretty strong year.

12 Years A Slave

And here it is – the bookies’ favourite and the likely front-runner, but it remains to be seen after Django Unchained, Lincoln and The Help how much more guilt-porn the Academy can take. It also remains to be seen if it’s any good. I haven’t seen either The Hunger or Shame but I’ve heard extremely mixed reports about both. 12 Years has been largely praised by critics and has done decent box office, but I worry that it will be too worthy and not engaging enough as a piece of narrative.

What wasn’t nominated

As well as All is Lost missing out, I had expected to see Inside Llewyn Davis get a mention and possibly August: Osage County. I feared that the execrable Blue Jasmine would appear and vaguely wondered if The Butler was in with a chance. Although I loved Saving Mr Banks and although the Academy generally appreciates Hollywood-devours-itself movies, that film always looked too… breezy to be in with a chance. In fact, the breezy parts I liked the best. When it attempts to wring psychological depth out of a piece of fruit, and when we spend endless tediously repetitive minutes cavorting with Colin Farrell in what is meant to be small-town Australia, I want to check out.

Other predictions…

If it all goes Steve McQueen’s away, and it still could, then Chiwetel Ejiofor has a good chance for Best Actor and McQueen himself for Best Director. Best Actress is probably going to Cate Blanchett – it’s hard to overlook such a stellar performance if, like me, you didn’t think much of the script. For people who liked the rest of the movie, it must have seemed virtually god-given.

As is often the case, the supporting nominations are a little more open. Michael Fassbender is probably the front-runner, again for 12 Years A Slave, but I wonder if Jared Leto might just nick it. For Best Actress, June Squibb must be a good bet. The Academy loves them some old ladies and if those old ladies are on film lifting up their skirts in a graveyard in order to taunt an old suitor in his grave, so much the better.

Best Director will probably go the same way as Best Picture, so if they give it to Alfonso Cuarón, and your bookie is still open, put a big bet down on Gravity immediately. On the other hand if, as seems more likely, it isn’t Gravity’s night, I can see these two awards splitting between Slave and Hustle although I’m not sure which way around is more likely.

Finally, screenplays and as usual we have two bites at the cherry as the Academy distinguishes (sometimes eccentrically) between original screenplays and adaptions. In the Original Screenplay category, I imagine American Hustle has it sewn up, and likewise I would expect Adapted to go to 12 Years A Slave. If, say, The Wolf of Wall Street pinches Best Adapted Screenplay, we could be in for some 3:00am surprises.

Okay, that’s where we’re at. More reviews coming soon.

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Media Centre update

Posted on January 9th, 2014 in Technology | No Comments »

My approach to obtaining television material to watch is currently undergoing a significant change, but before we get there, it might be as well to update you as to the continuing evolution of my set-up since I last wrote about this subject a little over three years ago.

First to go was the £30 remote which utterly failed the Wife Compatibility Test. It’s replacement, a Logitech Harmony One for £150, with its snazzy touch-screen, was deemed more suitable, but when repeated harsh treatment bust the snazzy touch-screen it was replaced with an even snazzier Harmony Touch and then more recently a Harmony Ultimate which allows for control of devices hidden in a wooden cabinet and also controls my Philips Hue lights.

When we moved into our new flat, a number of other changes took place. We got our own Sky dish nailed to the outside wall, avoiding all of those tedious single feed issues. I bought a cheap-and-cheerful Sony Blu-Ray/AV receiver which generally did a much better job of filling the room with 5.1 sound and so I eventually took the step of consigning the wheezing, puffing Windows Media Centre PC to the scrap-heap. Having experimented with a WD Live box which was hugely reluctant to access the files on my NAS drive reliably, I ended up with a Boxee Box shortly before they were discontinued. Despite the fact that no further updates will be forthcoming, I have yet to find online evidence of a device which will do a better job of getting a variety of video files off my NAS and on to my TV.

So, let’s recap. I want to accomplish three things. Watch DVDs and Blu-Rays. Watch broadcast TV (and time-shift it). Watch video downloaded from the Internet. The first two are easily covered by the Sony and Sky boxes respectively and the Harmony remote takes care of selecting all the right inputs. Let’s have a little talk about downloads.

Most of the shows I’m watching at the moment come from the USA and not all are promptly broadcast in the UK. Not just the premium “box set” dramas like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Masters of Sex but also mainstream network dramas like The Good Wife, sit-coms like Parks and Recreation and Community, and even some reality shows like Mythbusters or Kitchen Nightmares. It’s a complete lottery which of these will turn up on any of the various Sky channels, even though Sky’s On Demand service makes it easy to catch up on what you’ve missed.

Enter BitTorrent and, in particular TVTorrents.com. Within a couple of hours of the latest episode of Modern Family airing, a copy will be available on the site in your choice of compact .mp4 or hi-def .mkv file. I have an RSS feed set up with my favourite shows on it, so my laptop downloads the torrent file automatically, usually overnight, copies it over to my NAS drive, where the Boxee finds it, identifies it and adds it to the list of shows, downloading the episode title and synopsis, all ready for me to watch it that evening.

Now, Modern Family airs on NBC in the states which arrives free in people’s homes. So I’m not really depriving anyone of an income here, am I? True, I get an ad-free version, but I would skip the ads if I recorded it legally anyhow. Is this a crime? What about True Blood which airs on HBO in the states? Well, I would give HBO money to let me watch their shows if I could but they aren’t interested in taking it, so what choice to I have? Wait a year for the box set to come out? C’mon.

Of course, I could go to iTunes instead, but UK iTunes doesn’t have a complete (enough) library of these shows either. So, I’ll stick with the torrenting, please and thank you.

However, some notable torrent sites have bit the dust recently, and so it occurred to me to wonder what I would do if TVTorrents were just to disappear one day – in the middle of a particularly gripping storyline in Orphan Black, say.

Okay, now enter Netflix.

It certainly was convenient that the final half-season of Breaking Bad was on UK Netflix. But I didn’t have an easy way of getting it on my TV. Hooking up my iPad to the TV was possible, but not convenient and didn’t always work (seemed to be much more reliable with my iPad 3rd gen than my iPad Air – not sure why). So I tended just to torrent it and watch it via the Boxee anyway.

But that wasn’t an option for the various Netflix original series – Arrested Development, House of Cards and best of all Orange is the New Black. And while it’s fun to snuggle in bed watching on an iPad, sometimes you want to take advantage of that big screen out there. And none of my existing devices – TV, AV receiver, Boxee, Sky – had Netflix built in. They all had streaming services of some sort, but not that one. Was it worth buying an Apple TV just for Netflix?

Well, I waited a while, but when at the last Apple event no update was released and Apple was knocking out the most recent model for £75 I went for it, using up the last remaining HDMI input on my TV and having to use an optical cable to get the sound to run through the AV receiver.

It’s very nice. Slick, fast and I have AirPlay back (which an update to the Boxee mysteriously killed) which means that when some of the various automated virtual moving parts in the TVTorrents – RSS feed – uTorrent – RoboBasket – NAS Drive – Boxee system fail, I can AirPlay from the iPad to the TV instead. Nice.

And – oh yes – I can get iTunes content on the TV now without having to hook up the iPad. Hmm…

So – here’s the thing. Only about a quarter of the American shows I watch regularly are broadcast on UK TV in a reasonable timeframe. But only about a third are available to buy on iTunes UK. Now, I’ve had a US iTunes account for ages (I wanted to download the Movie Trailers app which bizarrely wasn’t available in the UK app store. I think it is now.) although it doesn’t have a credit card associated with it. The reason being that while iTunes was perfectly happy to accept the fake address in Florida I gave it, I have no credit card registered at that address to assign to the account.

Surely there would be some way of getting cash in there? Actually, there is. There are plenty of services which will sell you US iTunes gift cards, and these can be delivered on-line giving you a line of credit to make purchases from the US store with. Now downloading the latest series of The Big Bang Theory is as quick and easy as a few clicks and my Rube Golderg torrent/NAS/Boxee system is starting to look obsolete. I’ve finally upgraded my home broadband to Virgin fibre-optic, so now I hardly have to wait before the episodes start streaming in full HD. And while I don’t have copies stored locally, I have access on my TV or any other i-device whenever I want and I can always download there if I need to.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. This is the most tedious part of a quite laborious post, but I’ll try and make it brief. The Apple TV, which only streams and does not store anything, is perfectly happy for me to have many iTunes accounts and lets me flick between them at will. My iPad however insists that it be “registered” to one account or the other and I can only change this every 90 days. While it’s “registered” to my UK iTunes account I can still buy individual episodes or movies or movie rentals on the iPad from the US store, but I can’t download items previously purchased and that includes newly-released episodes where I’ve bought a “season pass”. After some reluctance, I took the plunge and switched my iPad to the US store, leaving my laptop set up on the UK store (so I can download items previously purchased there and sync them to the iPad if need be).

Almost all my shows are now available to me, at a cost of between $20 and $50 per year, which I can live with, and I now have the benefit of being able to flip between the Apple TV and the iPad without losing my place. Neat. There are a couple of exceptions – US iTunes seems very slow to get Game of Thrones but Sky Atlantic doesn’t hang about so no problem there. And Saturday Night Live is only carried in an expurgated version, but honestly it’s so hit-and-miss I think I can do without seeing every single minute.

Telling the Apple TV I am using an American iTunes account also causes US apps to pop up, but these are largely useless. There’s an HBO app, but unless I can give it details of my US cable provider, no soup for me. What’s curious is the different ways in which different providers assess your location. iTunes only cares about the source of funding. Got an American credit card? Here, have access to the US store. Netflix on the other hand only cares about where you physically are on the planet. Set up a UK Netflix account and then take your iPad to the states and you will suddenly get access to the American version.

But, as I already know from using a VPN to get access to iPlayer in Europe, it’s not difficult to fool these apps into thinking that you are somewhere you are not. I wonder about the Apple TV Hulu Plus app…? With a bit of help from Unlocator.com, I had changed the DNS settings on the Apple TV and bingo! I was able to sign up for Hulu Plus at just $7.99 per month (via my US iTunes account) and get access to about half of my favourite shows including full episodes of SNL. There are unskippable ads, but they don’t last very long.

I lose the ability to download a show and take it with me, but if I opt to watch Community via Hulu and then want to take an episode on a plane, I can always pay $1.99 to download that locally on to my iPad.

Obviously this is more expensive than the torrent solution, but I feel better about giving something back to the content creators, even if I’m not always doing it in the way they want me to. And I do feel less at the mercy of the MPAA. Of course, I am now at the mercy of Apple and Hulu instead. But maybe that’s a subject for a future post.

In the meantime – that’s my new system. I’ll let you know how it pans out…

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So… what did I think of Name/Night/Day/Time/Space/Hat of the Doctor?

Posted on December 26th, 2013 in Culture | 2 Comments »

cyber-handles-christmas-special-2013

To begin with, the fiftieth anniversary was an extraordinary milestone, celebrated in style. The tweedily earnest Matthew Sweet documentary was lovely; the Mark Gattiss drama was charming and moving, if unseemly brisk; the Peter Davison red button extra was properly hilarious and the Paul McGann mini-episode totally unexpected and absolutely extraordinary. Over the BBC Three post-show party, I must draw a polite veil in the interests of propriety.

What then of the episode itself? Hardly the direct continuation of the Series Seven finale I thought we had been promised. You’ll remember, if not really comprehend, that the Doctor and Clara were trapped, seemingly forever, in some bleak landscape of the Doctor’s own timeline, with no possible means of escape, and facing a hitherto unknown Doctor whose baleful powers were terrible and absolute. Hell of cliffhanger to leave us on. And resolved by – ignoring it completely. Oh well, maybe they weren’t quite as comprehensively trapped as they had seemed. Maybe there was an escape pod (there frequently is).

What we do get is a lovely widescreened version of the original titles, a glimpse of Coal Hill School where Clara The Impossible Girl (I think that’s her surname), her baffling reason-to-be having now been discharged, is working as a teacher. For reasons not clear even when explained, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart finds it convenient to very, very publicly air-lift the TARDIS to UNIT’s top-secret headquarters in order to explain some plot.

And now we meet the other Doctors. David Tennant slips back into the role so effortlessly that it’s easy to miss that Moffat has fallen into the same trap as Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes have before him. The returning Doctor is not written quite as we remember him, but as a rather broader, almost parody version. Tennant’s speech to the bunny rabbit is properly hilarious, but I can’t imagine RTD letting it through under his watch.

“The War Doctor”, as we must apparently call him, is more problematic for various reasons. Firstly, it seemed pretty obvious to me, and Moffat has now confirmed in interviews, that if Eccleston had agreed to come back, this would have been his part, and just as the “together, we’re a match for you” scene in The Five Doctors stumbles a little because Tom isn’t there, so too do the scenes of the three “modern” Doctors creak because we know one of them is a retrofitted interloper.

Far more damaging is the depiction of the Time War itself. As a phrase, as a concept, this fills the mind with all sorts of terrors and wonders. Once shown on the telly it looks like a video game. As another commenter pointed out, the Time War was introduced by Rusty to avoid all the continuity baggage of the Time Lords, but has now become that very continuity baggage.

Pretty soon, The Moment, cheekily played by Billie Piper, is chatting idly with John Hurt – which creates its own problems; surely the Eccelston Doctor would have recognised her in 2005 from this earth-shattering encounter? And before long all three Doctors are cheerfully shooting the breeze. There are some very, very funny lines here, some lovely nods to the fans and some signature Moffat touches with the sonic needing all that time to perform the calculations. And something about some Zygons. But around this point, I began to wonder – where is the urgency? Where is the jeopardy? Where is the threat? Have we finally put The Terrible Apocalyptic Time War on screen in order to turn it into a slightly dull undergraduate ethics class?

The problem is that the notion of wiping out Gallifrey in order to spare the universe, firstly is not adequately spelled out. It’s not really made clear what the Moment is going to do, nor what the alternative is. Secondly, the cost of either choice, not in terms of Universal Armageddon – such a thing is literally inconceivable and therefore undramatic – is not really apparent because the Hurt Doctor is so stoic. Compare his vague mulling over possible outcomes to the agonies which the Eccleston Doctor goes through in The Parting of the Ways as he attempts to decide whether or not to use the delta wave generator. It’s essentially the same plot device, but the extra power of the Davies’ version is hard to miss.

At some point, the Zygon plot rears its head again (even in 75 minutes it feels like there is at least one major plot-line too many here) and the solution provided is genuinely clever and arresting. Such a shame we can’t stick around to see the outcome. And then we pluck Gallifrey out of existence in a Blink-style manoeuvre in order to redeem the War Doctor while not quite unravelling the last eight years of television.

Quite apart from the fact that the entire Dalek fleet simply would not be eliminated in the crossfire, this is a shameless attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. It undermines the very concept of actions having consequences. It undermines the whole idea of an incarnation of the Doctor who would do unthinkable terrible things (we never see this, the worst he does is graffiti a wall). It undermines the whole idea that the Doctor is alone in the universe. And it doesn’t even make sense.

The scene with the curator is lovely, (now you turn up, do you, Tom? Where were you in 1983?) and the Doctors Assemble shot is a magnificent summation of the series, if slightly-iffy effects-wise and it brings to an end, a frustratingly uneven episode. The Fiftieth Anniversary Story had to be so many things to so many people it was almost doomed to fail. It had to be a love letter to the fans, in which it really did succeed. Just by putting Tennant back in the suit, it stood a good chance of doing that, but we got so much else besides. And it had to be an epic turning-point in the history of the show and to tell a really good story. It largely failed in both of these because the former undermined the latter. Take out all the Gallifrey stuff and have Ten and Eleven joining forces to battle the Zygons and you probably have a really good hour. Even with all the Gallifrey stuff, it might have worked if there had only been a greater sense of urgency – if Moffat had been able to make the awful choices faced by his heroes actually feel awful and then avoided that “with one bound they were free” ending.

But Moffat’s work is not yet done. The Christmas special also awaits in which supple, mercurial Smith must give way to Caledonian Capaldi. As is traditional, we start with a companion’s family. As is far from traditional, we also start with a slightly off-colour gag about the Doctor’s nudity. It’s odd that despite two return visits to Clara’s estate (see below) and the plot going to great lengths to remove Clara’s clothes as well, we never get the expected pay-off of both time-travellers returning to Christmas dinner in the altogether.

Thousands of ships are massing around a planet, bewilderingly identified as Gallifrey, later identified as Trenzalore – grave of the Doctor. Sepulchral voices demand to know “Doctor Who?” and so the Doctor has to go down and investigate. Clara and Eleven find themselves enveloped in a truth field, a startling idea which might give rise to all manner of best-kept-hidden secret hopes and fears but which is subsequently entirely ignored.

In fact, what they have discovered is a crack in time, the same crack which was first seen in Matt Smith’s debut episode, The Eleventh Hour, through which the Time Lords are now calling. Before this episode aired, Moffat promised that many unanswered questions would finally be addressed in this story. Good news, if like me you found the endings of the previous three seasons all utterly confounding. But we are no clearer now about what the hell was happening on the shore of Lake Silencio, or just how Amy Pond was able to reboot the universe by getting married, or what Clara Oswald was actually doing which made her so impossible. Instead, various elements of the previous three years are treated more like running gags to be mentioned briefly and occasionally connected to each other, while shedding very little light on anything.

The plot gears grind on and before long place the Doctor in a suitably impossible situation. If he speaks his name, the Time Lords will emerge and the Time War will start again. If he doesn’t the massed forces above will murder the people of Christmas. Unless of course, the Doctor bundles them all into his TARDIS and hides them away somewhere. It’s a bit of a feeble contrivance really, made more feeble by the fact that the murderous alien hoards as presented are so pathetic and easily-defeatable.

In yet another repeat of The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor tricks Clara into leaving not once but twice. It would be bad enough to repeat a story beat almost exactly, and with so little emotional cost; it’s unforgivable when that beat is lifted entirely from an earlier episode, part of whose function was also to regenerate the Doctor. Once again, see how much emotionally welly Russell gives to the Ninth Doctor abandoning Rose, and how little anyone seems to care that the Eleventh Doctor flagrantly breaks his promise to Clara.

That having been said, the scenes with geriatric Eleventh Doctor are some of the episode’s most effective. Old age make-up is always tricky, requiring expert co-operation between actor and prosthetics. Here, as the younger older Doctor (if you see what I mean) Matt Smith’s face sometimes looked unnaturally puffy, but the illusion of the older older Doctor I thought was superbly maintained. And what a clever device it was, I thought, to avoid the fact that Smith is so much younger than Capaldi, to age him almost to death before the regeneration occurs.

The cleverness of this idea is then immediately undermined by the final goodbye scene with the young Matt Smith. As nice as it was to see Karen Gillan again briefly, this scene was too maudlin, too late and had far too many final-sounding lines. Frustrating in an episode which didn’t seem to have time to pay off all its set-ups as it was.

For both these two episodes, then I have very mixed feelings. Professional standards are generally as sky-high as ever (although there was some nostalgically dodgy greenscreen work during the Doctor and Clara’s first entrance into the Mainframe) and the programme can now command top-flight actors in even minor parts – quick shout-out to Kayvan Novak as the voice of “Handles”, a lovely performance – all of the directors are working professionally within the show’s house style, so it’s all up to the scripts and while they both delivered in superficial ways, neither of them entirely made sense, lived up to their promise or created any truly memorable moments.

But, there it is. The Matt Smith era is done. Moffat has done all he is ever going to to tie up loose ends and resolve plots from this part of the show’s history. Having written some of the finest scripts ever for the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, and having cast one of the most unexpected and yet brilliant actors ever to have played the part in Matt Smith, who in turn has given us several stone cold classic episodes including The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes To War, The Girl Who Waited, The Crimson Horror, Steven Moffat can now leave the show in at least as good shape as he found it, with a strikingly different lead actor and – let us hope – a strikingly different approach to storytelling.

He’s what?

Oh…

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