Archive for January, 2014

Oscars 2014 – 12 Days a Slave

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

12-years-a-slave-600x307

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Media Centre update

Posted on January 9th, 2014 in Technology | 1 Comment »

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 ABC 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…