Archive for February, 2012

The Oscars 2012 – Part Five – “The Help”, “Tree of Life” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Posted on February 27th, 2012 in At the cinema | No Comments »

On to the final stretch now, with three movies none of which I would have chosen to see if it hadn’t been for this project. That’s part of the point of course. I doubt I would have gone to see Precious two years ago if I hadn’t attempted this experiment then, but I was very, very glad that I did – I thought it was quite magnificent.

I can’t be quite so positive about The Help but I can say that it was nowhere near as bad as I had feared. I am quick to criticise movies for being too long and/or too unfocused and The Help is both of these things, but they weirdly help it to overcome a much more profound and serious problem which is that its central storyline is appallingly trite, sententious, self-important and dated. I have no doubt that the indignities heaped upon black maids in the American South were ghastly, but this is old ground and this story – of a white girl (headstrong, doesn’t fit in, speaks her own mind – standard-issue in other words) who documents the stories of these maids for a book which becomes a best-seller – can’t add much to the corpus.

Not only does it have little to add, the whole approach brings a succession of problems, from the sometimes “Uncle Tom” portrayals of the black characters, to their need to be rescued by a white woman, to the fact that while I’m sure the details are well-researched, the story of the book and its publication is not true. This all means that one particularly outré choice is rendered rather hard to, um, swallow.

In the central role is Emma Stone, who is perfectly capable of playing this kind of part, for whom the word “spunky” could have been devised, but she never seems credibly of the era, in the writing or the playing. She never manages the artful trick pulled off by, say, Peggy in Mad Men – aware of the limitations that this society places upon her, and yet still credibly a part of that society and not an alien visitor or time-traveller. This is a shame, especially as the rest of the movie captures the period and place extremely well, and here is where the length and lack of focus helps. By giving the story breathing space and by creating an ensemble feel, writer-director Tate Taylor allows us to spend time away from the central and problematic central narrative and explore some smaller and more intimate stories, and hang out with a vibrant supporting cast.

These include a lovely turn from Allison Janney as Stone’s mother, hilariously useless white trash Jessica Chastain and some deliciously vile work from Bryce Dallas Howard as the apotheosis of casual racism. And this is without mentioning the excellent performances of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis as the two maids who are the first to jump on board. Spencer is sometimes given some unfortunately stereotypical dialogue, but her manner is so engaging I couldn’t help but smile at everything she did. Viola Davis doesn’t get as much screentime as I might have liked, but towards the end she is given the task of landing the film’s message and grounding it in some kind of human emotion which she manages with real feeling and dignity.

So, not quite the horrendous movie-of-the-week I feared, but still a TV movie with aspirations rather than a real piece of modern cinema. The same cannot exactly be said of The Tree of Life, the fifth film (in over forty years) from famous recluse and madman Terrence Malick. This film provoked both boos and applause at Cannes where it eventually walked off with the Palm D’Or and initially, it did capture me in its spell. Opening with an American family (father Brad Pitt, mother Jessica Chastain again) receiving the news that one of their sons has been killed, we then flash forward to the present day, where the boy’s brother is now a grown up architect played by Sean Penn. From where we go back in time to the creation of the universe (yes, you read that correctly) and then track the family’s early life through the eyes of the Penn character.

Presumably, the need to attach the relatively trivial story to an event as big as the creation of life is an attempt to give it greater depth, profundity and impact, but actually it has the opposite effect. Just as we grieve more for Luke Skywalker’s severed hand than we care about or even notice the dozens of anonymous stormtroopers gunned down by the good guys, it’s by placing us right at the heart of deeply felt events that film-makers can engage our emotions – not by continually insisting on showing us the bigger picture.

Equally misjudged I felt was the camerawork. Malick shoots the entire movie in either extreme close-ups or long wide shots (fitting for a movie which can’t decide on an appropriate scale from suburban to universal) but always with a steadicam lurching drunkenly around the actors. During the opening parts of the movie, this felt appropriate as a visual dramatization of this disorienting effects of grief and loss, but as the movie settled down into its long middle sequence, and as the by and large perfectly ordinary episodes of childhood played out, the looming, reeling camera became distracting and the effectiveness was lost.

It’s easy to give a patina of profundity to a narrative that hasn’t earned it by shooting it elliptically, by chopping up the time-frame or by juxtaposing other material, but is that all that The Tree of Life is doing? I’m not entirely sure. There’s clearly something important going on here for Malick – something about a childhood struggle between rigidity and clarity on one side (represented by Pitt’s manly father) and grace and flexibility on the other (represented by Chastain) – but something has got lost in the translation. I don’t mind the visual poetry of the opening sequence, nor indeed the similarly abstract closing, but if you abandon any sense of narrative and just show an audience a montage of images then to me the appropriate comparison isn’t with written poetry, it’s with a pop music video.

For me, though, it’s the banality of the middle section which kills it. The events of Jack’s life are just not interesting or extraordinary enough to bear the weight of pomposity which get heaped upon them by the modern-day bookends. And while Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are both fine, second-billed Sean Penn gets almost nothing to do (which may explain his negative attitude towards the film).

Overall though, in a year in which so many Best Picture nominees seem so entirely ordinary, I’m glad that the Academy recognised The Tree of Life. It has plenty of fans, even if I’m not one, and it’s certainly a bracingly original, strongly authored piece of work that deserves to have others decide for themselves whether there’s anything to it or not. That I found little may ultimately be my loss.

Finally then, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which has got pretty rotten reviews for a Best Picture nominee. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Stephen Daldry, this is the first movie I can remember which uses the events of 11 September 2001 not as the main focus of the narrative (United 93, World Trade Centre) but as a mere MacGuffin – a device to get the plot moving and nothing more. That plot is the story of a young boy played with suitable intensity by Thomas Horn – cast after his prize-winning performance on a TV quiz show! – who finds a key presumably belonging to his father who was killed in the attacks. With his probably-Asberger’s brain pulsating furiously, young Oskar Schell sets off in search of the key’s owner in a quest to reconnect with his father.

There is some good stuff here, but there are some lumpen choices which consistently drag the movie back down. One is the largely-redundant voice-over which continually points out what it might have been more satisfying for us to discover on our own. Then there’s the polished and syrupy direction which makes everything look like an advert, even (or especially) the recreated shots of the stricken towers. Overall, there’s a strong sense that the piece has been constructed, rather than evolved. Now, of course, all screenplays are constructed, but the best artfully conceal the nuts-and-bolts of their construction (just as the worst of those which don’t collapse entirely reveal all of the scaffolding). With Oskar’s father sending him off on treasure hunts, the selection of a key with no lock as the clue which Oskar must pursue, the juxtaposition of Oskar’s secret phone messages from his father with his friendship with Max von Sydow’s mute, the whole thing feels deliberately assembled and this makes it very easy to disengage.

It’s not even as if this makes a feature of its artful construction, like Amélie, say or Life is Beautiful. On the contrary, von Sydow’s character is dropped into the story very late in the day to prop up a narrative which is running out of steam, and then summarily removed having altered nothing. It’s a lovely performance, but a horribly clumsy bit of storytelling.

And then, suddenly, just when I was ready to give up on the whole thing, there’s a moment between Oskar and his mother, played with generous restraint by Sandra Bullock, which seems real and true and heartfelt. Some of the less credible details from earlier in the film are rendered much more believable, the script does manage to achieve a certain level of structural sureness and – yes! – that damned voice-over shuts up and for a whole ten minutes it’s a wonderful film.

Before the credits roll though, it’s slipped back into all its bad habits, with a closing sequence which is just as trite, unconvincing, mawkish and lumpen as before. Obviously designed as an Academy Award honey-pot (even down to the name of its central character subliminally suggesting gold statuettes), in the event, it won neither of the awards for which it was nominated.

Finally, let me assess my own performance. Out of eight predictions, I got six right which isn’t too bad for me. My out-there pick of Melissa McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress was proven wrong when the heavy favourite Octavia Spencer was named. And I was sure that The Artist would cement its success by winning Best Original Screenplay, but they actually gave it to Woody Allen. I was also pleased to see the excellent Rango scoop up the Best Animated Feature gong and delighted for Bret McKenzie who won Best Original Song.

Join me again next year – the standard surely can’t be any worse than it was this time!

The Oscars 2012 – Part Four – Predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2012 in At the cinema | No Comments »

My final reviews will be up shortly, but in the meantime, here are some quick predictions.

Overall, it will be The Artist‘s night. No picture will win more awards, it will probably bag around 5-6 of the ten it has been nominated for. Hugo will be largely overlooked, except maybe for some technical awards.

Best Picture will go to The Artist but should probably go to The Descendants (or RON)

Best Director will go to Michel Hazanavicius, probably deservedly.

Best Actor will go to Jean Dujardin, but I would love Gary Oldman to get it for his George Smiley instead.

Best Actress will go to Meryl Streep – no bet will be safer this year. There’s a reason why Bérénice Bejo was put up for Best Supporting Actress instead!

Best Original Screenplay will go to The Artist, but I have also heard good things about Margin Call.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a very tough category, but I think The Descendants must surely get it.

Best Supporting Actor will likely go to Christopher Plummer, in a lifetime achievement sort of a way.

Best Supporting Actress should go to Melissa McCarthy by rights, and with Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer splitting The Help‘s votes, it just might.

Check back here tomorrow to see if I’m right. I don’t have access to Sky currently so I can’t watch them live, but I’ll try and see some highlights early next week. As noted, my final reviews of The Help, The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will be up here very shortly.

The Oscars 2012 – Part Three – “War Horse” and “Moneyball” (and “The Muppets”)

Posted on February 20th, 2012 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse continues the 2012 Oscars trend of handsomely made and utterly unthreatening movies. Adapted from, let us not forget, a children’s book and also owing a huge (and credited) debt to the National Theatre’s stage version, this is bracing, stirring, wryly funny with a great feeling for time and place and character. It’s also an almost suffocatingly cosy chocolate box of a movie which never even begins to transcend its kid-friendly origins.

Lack of time and planning this year means I haven’t done my homework as well as I could have. I haven’t read Michael Morpurgo’s novel in which the story is told from the horse’s point of view. Nor have I seen the acclaimed theatre production. So I am forced to judge Spielberg’s movie on its own terms, but I can’t help feeling that an extra element, such as a first-horse perspective or an astonishing feat of puppetry would be required to makes this naïve fable into something richer and more arresting.

Given that the narrative is going to be rendered in such a straightforward way, Spielberg is an ideal match for the material. His camera swoops and darts, virtually canters, around the environments and with no need for funny glasses he creates tremendous depth and energy in every frame. Possibly no director working today understands light, space and movement better than he does and together with production design Rick Carter and director of photography Janusz Kaminski render the rolling hills of Devon, the French woodlands and the grime of the trenches with an incredible lush richness. Parts of it look like they were shot in 1940s Technicolor, but unfortunately this same simplistic approach carries through to the rest of the movie.

It’s not just that the characters are so broadly drawn, or that in deference to his young audience, Spielberg tastefully cuts away from or otherwise elides the deaths of speaking characters. Bluntly, in story terms, any adult watching this movie is required to accept that Joey – the central equine character – is a horse who is so unimaginably appealing that adults and teenagers from almost any background fall in love with him as soon as they see him, and in the grip of this romantic delusion, they are then compelled to spend vast sums upon him, adopt him, even risk their own lives to protect him, and finally to put themselves in the line of fire to be reunited with him. The fragile spell which this movie casts could be shattered at any moment if anyone were just to say “I’m terribly sorry, this is just a horse like any other, isn’t it? I do beg your pardon, I must have lost my mind for a moment.”

This danger is most apparent during the incredible scene where Joey is rescued from No Man’s Land. Here Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s script, as well as some nicely underplayed performances, just about prevent the on-screen action from tipping into total absurdity. As it is, credibility is merely strained and not completely shattered.

By the time Joey rides joyfully home, silhouetted like Lassie against a painterly sunset, I assume the idea is that there isn’t a dry eye in the house, and if I was a horse-obsessed eleven year old girl then I might have succumbed. But even John Williams’ swooping strings couldn’t wring a single tear from my stubborn eyes.

This I followed with Moneyball, the true story of how a baseball team struggling for cash harnessed the power of statistics to identify overlooked and undervalued players and change the nature of the game. This is a fascinating story, with a sharp script from old hand Steven Zaillian, burnished up by Aaron Sorkin – who fits this material like a catchers’ mitt – and it’s certainly a film for grown-ups as opposed to War Horse.

Watching the story unfold, I was never bored, but I was struck by the fact that it’s very much a process story – a sports procedural if such a thing were to exist. I’m inclined to give the larger share of the credit to Sorkin for making the early scenes between Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane and his army of advisors, and then with Jonah Hill’s pudgy economics whizzkid so engaging. The dialogue crackles without ever seeming overly smart. But there’s a remote, chilly feel which the brief divergences to Billy’s family life and history in the game of baseball does little to dispel. In fact, at times, these glimpses of the human life behind the quasi-political struggle feel like distractions.

What’s curious is that there’s no attempt to bring the emotional story and the procedural aspects together in any meaningful way, beyond a few fist-pumps and exhortations. When Billy’s carefully constructed team on a shoe-string budget is not deployed on the field the way he intended, he has to outmanoeuvre the team manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But although we understand how Billy forced Art’s hand, there’s never any emotional pay-off – not even when Art starts getting the credit for Billy’s savvy hiring. The character just fades away as unceremoniously as he appeared. Nor does Jonah Hill’s character seem to grow or respond to his new success in any way. And it’s part of Billy’s story that he remains resolutely fixed on his goal even as the movie closes – in fact, the moment which moved me the most is a caption which appears at the end of the film, just before the credits roll, which says a lot about the approach taken.

But, before I’m tempted to say outright, that this would have been better as a talking-heads documentary, which would have allowed even more analysis of the statistical methods used (“woo!”) I must pause and acknowledge the contribution that Brad Pitt makes. No longer just a pretty boy actor, Pitt is now a genuine movie star in every sense of the word, and he illuminates the whole of Moneyball, making the whole thing seem worthwhile.

So, that’s six down and three to go, and at the moment I feel like I would happily rewatch The King’s Speech before I saw any of them again and that The Hurt Locker absolutely pisses on all six of them. But my movie week wasn’t entirely disappointing. I won’t say too much about The Muppets except that it is wonderful. Knowing enough for the adults, sweet enough for the kids, funny enough for the teens, and if Fozzie Bear sometimes doesn’t sound quite right, then that’s a small price to pay for having Kermit and Co back. Commission the sequel right now!

Update Feb 2012

Posted on February 18th, 2012 in Blah | No Comments »

A quick update – there will be a more substantive post tomorrow.

Fitness

My weight today is 145.8lb meaning I have lost about a stone since early January and putting me exactly on target to lose 20lb by mid-March. With a little help from the iPhone Get Running app, I’ve successfully completed a 25 minute run (albeit not at a ferocious pace and on my second attempt). I’m even considering keeping up the calorie counting and running after mid-March, although my resolve may eventually crack, especially where my late evening cheese-and-biscuits is concerned.

Movies

A small interregnum but I hope to see War Horse tomorrow. I also have gained access to copies of Tree of Life, Moneyball and The Help but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch any of them. Instead, I’m going to see The Muppets tonight.

Other writing

As well as working on the next edition of The Improv Handbook, I have finally found a publisher for my Columbo book, provisionally titled “My Wife Thinks You’re Terrific”. This complete episode guide will be published by Miwk in early 2013. And I am now contributing Doctor Who articles to the What Culture blog. The first one is here.

More news will follow shortly about Coalition, my satirical play which is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. You can also see photos of my new flat here.

That’s my life. How’s yours?

Blubberguts

Posted on February 4th, 2012 in Blah | 11 Comments »

When I was younger, I made a deal with my body. For my part, I would eat whatever I liked in whatever quantities I deemed appropriate, take only minimal exercise and generally try not to stress the poor thing out unduly. In return for this largesse, my body agreed not to change its size and shape in any way.

Aged about 32, my body welched on the deal.

Now, I should say, that although not very tall, I do have quite a slender frame and as a boy or even a young man, I was positively skinny. Through my thirties, however, to this slim physique was added the gentle and yet unmistakable curve of a spare tire around my abdomen and even, yes, a little extra flesh around the jawline. However – what’s a boy to do? I do like my food (at least some food), especially red meat, potatoes (especially in the form of fries, creamy mash or roasted in goose fat) and glorious, blessed, holy cheese. Not only that, but as I do most of the cooking, I am in the habit of cooking for two – whether there is anyone else home or not. Clearly, a big part of the problem was portion control.

In 2008 I put myself on a calorie-controlled diet and I’m repeating the experiment currently. Ever looked at those two ton Americans who end up having to be winched out of their homes and taken to hospital to be humanely destroyed, and wondered how they got like that? Because they didn’t start managing their diet when they were still only a bit chunky. If you wait until you are already morbidly obese, it’s too damn late.

So, below I’m going to lay out how I’m doing it and how well it’s working. It’s not the only way, I’m sure, but it’s entirely in line with most findings about weight loss, so I want to take the time briefly to explode a few myths. Before that though, a brief moment of exculpation.

Weight gain and loss is a sensitive issue for some people, and I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be anorexic or to have suffered decades of taunting about my weight or to define myself in terms of how skinny I am. My self-esteem is – thankfully – not tied to whatever the scales tell me today. I am not “battling my weight”, I am not crash-dieting. I am a little bit heavier than I think is ideal and I’m doing something about it. This isn’t an instruction to anyone else. It’s just a description of my thought process, my actions and their outcomes. ‘Kay? ‘Kay.

So, to begin with calories are king. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Every calorie you ingest has to go somewhere. Some will be used to build muscle. Some will be used to keep your heart pumping and your blood oxygenating. Some will be lost through excretion. But they all go somewhere. Generally speaking, if you burn up more calories than you take in, your body will start unlocking the extra calories it has stored in the form of fat in order to keep the show on the road. And if you use fewer calories than you ingest, your body will start adding to those fat stores.

Now, metabolic rates (how fast your body goes through calories) do vary, but they vary much more from person-to-person than they do for the same person from day-to-day. Your metabolic rate is your metabolic rate, and although it will change a bit according to diet, disposition, overall health and so on, it won’t change a lot. You want to lose weight? You need to shift that calories balance.

And here’s where two different concepts tend to get conflated. There is a world of difference between a “healthy” food and a “low-calorie” food. A glass of water is the perfect low-calorie food, since it contains no calories at all. But it also contains no nutrients. If you ingest nothing but water, you will die (although not for 2-3 weeks).

A McDonald’s cheeseburger contains about 295 calories. A Pret A Manger Chicken Avocado sandwich contains 462 calories. The Pret sandwich is probably more nutritious – it contains a wider variety of nutrients than the cheeseburger – but if you wanted to lose weight, you would be better off with the burger!

So, it’s important to be clear about your goals before you start modifying your eating habits. It’s actually very, very difficult to hurt your body by not giving it enough of the things it needs. If you don’t eat enough fibre, you’ll eventually start getting digestion problems. If you don’t eat any vitamin C, you’ll eventually die of scurvy. If you scarf down too much saturated fat (emphasis on saturated) then you’ll eventually hit heart problems. But the key here is “eventually”. Scurvy takes months to develop and heart disease takes decades. You can’t stave off heart disease by not eating chips for a month. But nor will you be hospitalised for malnutrition if you eat KFC every day. The problem in the Western world is usually too many calories and almost never too few nutrients.

Nor, crucially, can you lose weight by avoiding certain types of foods, or by over-indulging in others – except in so far as such alterations to your diet cause you to ingest fewer calories as a byproduct. And, so that raises a couple of other issues. The first is a variation of the Hawthorne Effect in which people who are on a diet – any diet – tend to lose weight at least at first simply because they are more aware of what they are eating. Just keeping a food diary, writing down everything you eat, can help many people to lose weight, because it helps to prevent mindless snacking.

Other faddish diet, like the famous Atkins eat-all-the-cream-and-red-meat-you-like-but-stay-off-the-pasta diet add to this principle by giving you an additional appetite suppressant. If you go to a steakhouse and order steak and chips with béarnaise sauce (and I hope that you would), here’s how the calories break down. A big rump steak might weigh 400g, which will supply about 500 calories. The béarnaise adds about another 120 calories, depending on how much they dollop on. The fries are the hardest to estimate, but assuming a largeish portion of shoestring fries, they will probably run you around another 400-600. So clearly, if you have the steak without the fries (or indeed the fries without the steak), you will roughly halve your total number of calories. But if you have scoffed down your own plate of steak and chips and your dining companion has left half their fries behind, you might very well pick at them until they’re all gone. It’s rather less likely that if they leave half their steak behind that you’ll want to start in on that. The protein-rich steak fills you up more than the starchy fries do, so the Atkins diet gives you a similar feeling of fullness for fewer calories.

Cutting down fat makes sense if you want to diet, again because it generally results in cutting down on calories. Fats are the most calorie-rich foods, so eating less of them is generally good. But beware of low-fat foods which compensate for the lack of delicious fat by loading you up with sugar instead. Fat contains about 9 calories per gram. Sugar, although better, still contains around 4 calories per gram. (Since you asked, alcohol contains around 7 calories per gram, but nobody drinks pure alcohol.) Once again, it’s vital to distinguish between health and weight-management. A diet coke contains almost nothing of nutritional value, but it clearly also contains no toxins (why would a capitalist company choose to poison its customers?) so it makes an ideal drink for a dieter. A delicious glass of healthy orange juice contains lots of health-giving vitamin C and lovely fibre, but will also set you back around 90 calories. Which is more important right now? Extra vitamins or fewer calories? As long as you’re clear about what you’re eating and drinking and why, there’s no problem. But if you add extra “healthy” nuts and fruit to your diet, you won’t lose weight. You’re just adding an extra source of calories.

If you really need convincing that it’s how many calories you eat and not what you eat that matters with weight loss, then consider the case of nutritionist Mark Haub who set out to test this very issue by putting himself on all-Twinkie diet. A Twinkie (a sort of sponge cake with a creamy filling, beloved of American 7-11s) is hardly a healthy food, being loaded with sugar and fat and little else of nutritional value, but because the calories are printed on the packet, you can know exactly how many you are ingesting and so regulate your weight. Mark ate one Twinkie every three hours (plus a protein shake and a multivitamin once a day and a few celery stalks of an evening) thus limiting his calorific intake to 1800 calories per day. He lost 27lb in two months.

So – finally – here’s my plan.

Step one – count calories

Using myfitnesspal.com and its companion iPhone app, I’ve selected a calorie goal of 1480 calories per day. I drink little other than black coffee (no sugar) and diet coke, both of which are negligible in terms of their calorie content. I eat a lot of M&S ready-meals (which I reckon have improved dramatically in the last five years) because, like the Twinkies, they have the calories printed on the box. Yesterday I had a toasted muffin for breakfast (226 calories including the butter), a Pret brie baguette for lunch (396 calories) and an M&S Gastropub Cottage Pie with a whole pack of Classic Layered Vegetables (665 calories total) for supper and I went to bed feeling quite satiated. With the iPhone app, I can snap the barcodes and add the meals to my food diary instantly.

Step two – cardiovascular exercise

Exercising more means you use up more calories. You also might stimulate your metabolic rate a bit (but only a bit – see above). It also helps me to feel like I’m doing something, getting somewhere. But running burns about 500 calories per hour. If you run for 15 minutes and then eat a crème egg, you’ve done more harm than good. I hate gyms, they depress me, but running at least feels not entirely pointless. Following, of all people, Charlie Brooker’s recommendation, I’m using an iPhone app called Get Running. You run three times a week and the programme ramps up each week. You can listen to music or an audio book and the app chips in every so often with fresh instructions – “run for three minutes”, “cool down by walking for a minute-and-a-half” and so on. At the start of the process, you only run for a minute or so at a time. By the end of week 9, you’re running for thirty continuous minutes. I’m on week 5. I’m also working my way through the 100 push ups programme.

Step three – record everything

What motivates me is seeing progress. I weigh myself every morning just before jumping in the shower and record the results in a simple spreadsheet. Weight fluctuates considerably – a change of up to 2lb in 24 hours in not unknown – so I run a five-day moving average to smooth out the noise in the data. On 5 January I weighed 160lb. Probably as heavy as I’ve ever been and just nudging into overweight on the BMI chart. It’s possible I was heavier earlier this year, before a horrible throat infection which turned me off pretty much all food for about a week. Today, my bathroom scales have packed up, but yesterday morning I weighed 149.6lb. Last time round, I got down from 156lb to 147lb but gave up in mid-February. This time, my target is 140lb by mid-March when I turn 40.

It would probably be better – certainly more sustainable – to just get out of the habit of munching through an entire block of cheddar in an evening, but this will at least be a start.

The Oscars 2012 – Part Two – “Hugo”

Posted on February 3rd, 2012 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hugo is not exactly a typical Scorsese movie, but then it’s hardly a typical anything. At first glance it appears to be a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie by way of Pixar featuring a cast of mo-cap characters in the Tintin mode. Why is Hit Girl from Kick Ass talking like a character from E Nesbitt? What’s Borat doing there? Is that Dracula? What the hell is going on?

What’s going on is that Scorsese is making a movie which kids could watch without being scarred for life. It’s his first stereoscopic movie (it isn’t 3D), and although as usual with this technique, objects don’t appear to have any real roundness and form, appearing more often as flat cut-outs which move away and toward the viewer, the illusion of depth is often very well used.

It’s easy to right-off movies which are visually dazzling as all style and no substance, but that’s not an entirely fair criticism here. First of all, it really does dazzle. The production design by Dante Ferretti is absolutely eye-popping throughout and Scorsese’s camera swoops and glides through it, and seamless CGI augmentations of it, as if the director is channelling David Fincher. The story is admittedly slender, but it doesn’t grind to a halt so we can admire the execution. The spectacle of it all is part of the point.

Because this is the story of the rediscovery of the works of Georges Méliès, by way of a clockwork robot which recreates one of his designs, when Hugo finally completes the restoration job. Méliès was a pioneer of cinema in an age when spectacle was the principal attraction of the medium. While on the one hand this legitimises Scorsese’s sudden indulgence in every pixel-pumping trick in his new digital handbook, it also creates a narrative distance. The ostensible hero is Asa Butterfield as the titular Hugo Cabret – all saucer-eyed stoicism and fierce introversion. But his function in the plot is to reveal and elevate Ben Kingsley, restrained and dignified as Méliès. As uninterested as Scorsese is Hugo, he isn’t that interested in Méliès either – this is really a love letter from a filmmaker to the medium as a whole.

Still, as gossamer-thin as this is, it is still a lot of fun, populated largely by cartoon characters, to be sure, but handsomely drawn ones, with any number of top British actors given ninety seconds each to make an impact. Richard Griffiths, looking rather like Billy Bunter in his 70s, and Frances de la Tour, who put me in mind of the drawings of James Thurber, briefly flirt through the medium of pets. Emily Mortimer looks doe-eyed at evil Borat, who in his impossibly bright blue uniform and with his gammy leg and black-gloved hand, comes off like a demented blend of Doctor Strangelove, the Child Catcher and the Conductor in the Polar Express. I’m still not entirely sure that was Sascha Baron Cohen and not Andy Serkis in a body stocking. Jude Law and Ray Winstone get one fairly brief scene each. Ray Winstone!!

Standing out are Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) who doles out great lumps of exposition with a twinkly stillness which is totally arresting, and luminous Chloë Grace Moretz, who handles the cut-glass English accent with aplomb. (Why is it that Scorsese requires English accents from every cast member – does that say “Paris” to the inhabitants of Boise Idaho?)

What’s frustrating is how sanitised this all is – not just that it’s kid-friendly – but how limited in scope and ambition this is. There’s no real pain, no cost to anything, preciously little jeopardy – even the runaway train looks too pretty to carry any actual threat. Disney killed Bambi’s mother but the man who brought us Goodfellas and Taxi Driver can’t summon up any grit at all, any lemon juice to add a bit of sharpness to this sometimes cloying chocolate box of a movie.

All of which would be fine – I don’t think Scorsese has failed in his intentions, I think he’s made precisely the movie he wanted to – if it weren’t for the fact that this is the most nominated film at this year’s Academy Awards. Has Hollywood forgotten how to make truly epic films about emotions and relationships, or has the Academy just stop noticing them?

As I feared, it’s looking like a thin year. So far we’ve had one self-regarding doodle, one joyful bit of fluff, a piece of confectionary in movie form and a slice of superior soap opera which is currently the best of the bunch. The King’s Speech might have been a bit cosy, but at least it was about something.

Four down, five to go.