So… what did I think of Series 10 so far?

Posted on April 27th, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Series 10 feels like an event for all sorts of reasons. Twelve years after the triumphant return of Doctor Who, we finally reach our tenth set of episodes, with Capaldi following the now-established pattern of lead actors doing three-seasons-over-four-years in the part. So, it’s the last set of episodes with Malcolm Tucker at the helm of the TARDIS, and it’s the last set of episodes with Steven Moffat at the reins behind the scenes.

And despite, or maybe because of that, the avowed intention for the first episode is to provide a new jumping-on point for new viewers, with the cheeky title given to the season opener making this even more obvious.

In keeping with his notion of the War Doctor being a Doctor we, the viewers, somehow missed in 1996-2005, Moffat allows that more time has passed since Christmas 2016 than was seen during The Return of Doctor Mysterio. So, while we’ve been away, the Time Lord has stopped his wandering, taken up residence as a university don, and taken to guarding a mysterious vault. Only Matt Lucas’s Nardole represents an explicit link to episodes past.

So we get the repeated pleasure of seeing the Doctor through fresh eyes, those eyes this time belonging to Pearl Mackie’s amazingly winning Bill. To be sure, the companion part is fast becoming one of BBC television’s plumb roles and the producers no doubt had their pick of fresh young British talent, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have come up with an immensely charming and skilled performer here, who will brighten the TARDIS considerably for at least these twelve episodes (rumours are that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall wants to cast his own companion as well as his own Doctor).

That’s despite the fact that the writing is by-and-large twisting itself into absurd pretzels to make her as appealing across the board as possible. After Billie Piper’s defiantly chavvy Rose and Catherine Tate’s abrasive Donna, the TARDIS was subsequently inhabited by the rather more middle class Karen Gillian and the very plummy Clara The Impossible Girl. Where to put Bill on the social spectrum? Her speech is highly articulate and yet her accent contains frequent glottal stops and rough edges. She’s serving chips, so she’s common, but she’s attending lectures so she’s upwardly mobile. She’s upper lower working middle class and it’s a testament largely to Mackie that she emerges as a person and not as a bundle of unrelated characteristics.

The story meanwhile is largely a remix of familiar elements, including such old favorites as the possessed body, the pool of alien goo, the remnants of alien visitors and – a peculiarly Moffat one this – the inconsequential tour of the universe. In the context of the episode, this last one works fine (it’s partly there to show Bill and therefore the new viewers what the TARDIS is capable of) but it’s symptomatic of a nasty habit of the outgoing head writer – taking gigantic ideas and treating them trivially. The TARDIS’s ability to flit across all of time and space is utterly remarkable. Any opponent which can match it point-for-point should be an absolutely colossal threat. But here it just gets talked to death as if it were barely even a problem. Still, nice to see the Movellans again.

Still as remixes go, this was well enough-paced and witty enough to keep me happy. It’s worth three-and-a-half stars, but I’ll give it four because it’s the season opener and I think the rules are a little different for first episodes – but I’ll need next week to considerably up the stakes.

 

Of course, next week has already been-and-gone and rather than taking the ground-work laid by The Pilot and building on it, Smile simply repeated achingly familiar tropes from Doctor Who and other series past, while committing many of the same rookie mistakes as Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previously limp offering.

Some writers just aren’t suited to Doctor Who. Now, I’m fine with people like Richard Curtis and Simon Nye being given the chance to try their hand because one of the advantages of the anthology nature of the series is that it can effectively reinvent itself every week if it chooses. But once someone has shat the bed as comprehensively as the writer of In The Forest of the Night then there’s simply no need to give them another go, regardless of how much the show-runner likes them personally, or how heavily-laden their awards shelf is.

To be fair, this isn’t quite as bad as the previous offering, but it’s pretty soggy, generic stuff, suffering from poor pacing, rotten characterisation, a lack of new ideas and stupid costumes. The earlier scenes with the colonists set up both the problem and its solution too clearly for the Doctor’s laborious discovery of the same to hold any interest at all. And it really doesn’t help that while Mina Anwar is remixing – of all classic era stories – The Happiness Patrol, she appears to be wearing a costume made out of bubble wrap. For a moment I thought I was watching a Victoria Wood or French and Saunders spoof of the unloved and under-budgeted 80s programme, with ludicrous technobabble and silly plastic robots, not the BBC’s now much-feted and well-loved flagship family export.

Then the script can’t make up its mind whether there are colonists here or not. Instead of the Doctor arriving in time to save the last remaining embattled survivors, when he and Bill show up, the place is deserted. Now it can be argued that deserted corridors are spookier or more atmospheric, but it makes it much harder to establish a world, or a society when there are no other people around. Either way, it’s undeniably cheaper to do it this way, and that’s what these early scenes looked like – done on the cheap.

The Doctor first deduces that the colonists are on-their-way, then that the advance guard has already been killed, then that the colonists are here but in suspended animation – and then he decides to wake them up first and solve the lethal problem later. That’s after he’s decided not to blow the place up of course – a spectacularly stupid and reckless plan for the world’s smartest man, which sits very poorly with the overall morality of the series. The sense of a script desperately spinning its wheels isn’t helped by the Doctor repeatedly trying and failing to leave Bill behind, which is fair enough as the story would have unfolded in exactly the same way if she’d never set foot in the TARDIS at all.

And as well as being over-familiar, the central idea doesn’t really makes sense either – in two different ways. The silly plastic robots (hereafter referred to as SPRs) are so keen to make the humans happy that they murder anyone who is miserable. Surely this is a glitch which a) can be corrected by their human masters who – as the teaser makes perfectly clear – know precisely why the robots are killing them all; and b) which could have been found during early field trials and corrected then?

But let’s not forget that the whole complex, including the SPRs, has actually been constructed from swarms of nano-bots. This tedious science-fiction cliché seems to be everywhere at the moment, from Disney’s Big Hero Six, to this week’s episode of Supergirl, to – let’s not forget – Doctor Who’s own The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. The nano-bots can construct anything – walls, floors, ceilings, kitchens. So, why do they need SPRs at all? What can a SPR possibly do that that nano-bots couldn’t do far more easily and conveniently without assuming that clumsy form?

And when the generic band of colonists are inexplicably defrosted at the least convenient time, not one of them can summon up an ounce of characterization or interest. Instead, the Doctor actually literally pushes the reset button to solve the problem.

This is very, very thin stuff, which fails to play to any of its writer’s strengths, gives two brilliant lead actors almost nothing to do and fails to add anything at all to the body of Doctor Who ideas. I can only assume it was commissioned a very long time ago, before Nardole was added to the TARDIS crew, because the solution to the problem of how you stop Matt Lucas being so annoying was solved this time by leaving him behind. A better solution might be to give his character an actual stake in the narrative.

So, far from my favorite, but not quite as suffocatingly poor as Forest. I’ll scrape together two stars for it, and then knock half a star off again for this being yet another Automated System Gone Awry. It even looks like The Girl Who Waited. Was it shot in the same location?

 

Next week, we complete the new companion trifecta of Earth-bound adventure, far future space fantasy, and creepy historical. Hopefully, these two episodes represent a slightly wobbly take-off and not a fatal collapse of the whole infra-structure.

Oscars 2017 – Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hell or High Water

This was still showing at a couple of rep cinemas but I missed it and had to catch up with it on iTunes. Maybe it would have cast a stronger spell over me in a cinema, but watching at home on my own I was immensely struck by how ordinary it was, especially in the light of the other nominees. It’s not a bad film by any means, but nothing in it is in any way striking, original or important.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine as the brothers resorting to bank robbery for reasons which (to create a bit of extra false suspense) are not immediately clear and Jeff Bridges is in good form as the laconic sheriff on their tale. The sprawling rural setting, casual violence and Bridges in particular all call the Coen Brothers to mind, but this is even more straight down the line than True Grit, arguably their most conventional film, and it sorely lacks the kind of idiosyncrasies which they or someone like them might have been able to bring.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is unhurried (good!), the characters do more than simply go through the motions, and David Mackenzie photographs and paces it well, but I couldn’t find anything to excite me. It’s all fine, but it’s all been done as well or better elsewhere, notably on TV in shows like Justified and especially Breaking Bad.

Hidden Figures

More problematic is Hidden Figures, which aims higher and misses much more comprehensively. On paper, this looks like ideal Oscar fodder. Like Best Picture Winners before it including The King’s Speech, Argo and god help us, Shakespeare in Love, it appears to tackle important issues but does so in a way which is ultimately reassuring rather than challenging. While this is not as cack-handed as either, this film reminded me not of the foregoing but rather of previous nominees The Help and The Imitation Game.

To begin with, this was a story which deserved a wider airing and if people who had not known about their contribution beforehand leave the cinema able to cite the names Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (as well as appreciating that they were three of an entire team of African-American women who contributed to NASA in very significant ways over several decades) then that is a very good thing indeed.

But it’s a shame that the movie itself is so generic, bland and unconvincing. As with The Imitation Game, I am not unduly worried about historical accuracy (although it’s reassuring that unlike with that film, someone on set knows how to pronounce the name Euler). I did feel that I didn’t learn an awful lot, compared to, say Selma for example, but to be fair it’s not entirely to Selma’s credit that I was rather uninformed about that period of Dr King’s life, nor is it a slam against the makers of Hidden Figures that I was rather more aware of the facts that movie is based on. But whereas Selma viscerally made me feel what life was like for black people in the segregated south, Hidden Figures feels like the carnival float version, depicting the pain and struggle in very broad and familiar brushstrokes.

So I don’t mind at all that in reality Katherine Johnson just went ahead and used the whites-only ladies’ room, nor that although John Glenn did ask for her personally to check the calculations, she had a couple of days to do it. What I do mind is that the depiction of these women’s struggle is not on its own terms convincing, illuminating or even terribly interesting. Compared to the depiction of sexism (and to a lesser extent, racism) in Mad Men, although the fictional versions of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary do face a lot of road blocks, most of them are overcome fairly easily once they make an Impassioned Speech. When in 2017, Donald Trump is trying to stop transgender people from using appropriate bathrooms and stopping green card holders from being with their families, the cosy come-on-in-and-join-us, racism-is-solved moments come across as smug and complacent, rather than punch-the-air triumphant. The slow thawing of Kirsten Dunst’s character towards Octavia Spencer is the sole exception, as this is at least presented without the implausible grandstanding seen elsewhere.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder does little to really establish who these three women are and what sets them apart from each other, so we must be thankful that the three leads do such amazing work. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all manage to find moments to elevate the largely sit-com style script to something a bit deeper and more complex, but these opportunities are frustratingly rare. Meanwhile Director Theodore Melfi has failed to learn the lesson of Apollo 13, where Ron Howard used all-CGI shots of rockets and spacecraft, but made them all look as much like real footage as possible. Here we have science-fiction style sequences where virtual cameras whirl around shiny capsules, cut together with archive footage which clashes horribly.

So, I fear that one of the films I was most looking forward to ends up as probably the weakest of this year’s bunch.

Now – predictions. The big question is: will this be La La Land’s night? I’m going to say yes. Moonlight is gathering a lot of buzz but faced with a choice between the feel-good musical about Hollywood itself, or the low-key drama about a black, gay man whose life is turned around by the drug trade, the very conservative Academy is going to stick firmly in the middle ground, so La La Land takes Best Picture and Damien Chazelle takes Best Director, although I wouldn’t entirely rule Barry Jenkins out of the running.

Denzel Washington has probably done enough to eclipse Casey Affleck in the Best Actor stakes, but if it is going to be La La Land’s night, then Emma Stone will take Best Actress. The Best Supporting categories are far easier to predict, with Mahershala Ali needing to write a speech and Viola Davis probably having already cleared space on her dresser.

As they are nominated in different categories, Moonlight and La La Land can expect to split the screenwriting awards and I’d expect La La Land to take Best Song, Best Score and maybe Best Cinematography too.

Let’s check back here tomorrow and see how I did.

Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.

Oscars 2017: Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge

Posted on February 14th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Three more movies to add to my tally. Minor spoilers throughout – you have been warned.

Manchester by the Sea

Writer director Kenneth Lonergan was not someone whose work I was very familiar with. I’d seen Gangs of New York, but that seems like writer-for-hire stuff, owing much more to Scorsese’s vision that Lonergan’s. I haven’t seen You Can Count on Me or Margaret – but on the other hand, I have seen a fair number of Boston Male Angst movies, generally starring whichever Afflecks are nearest to hand, or Matt Damon if wet (here Damon produces and Casey stars).

Initially, Manchester is a slow burn. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler operates according to the cast-iron law of movie heroes that the audience will always like you, no matter how grievous your crimes or appalling your character flaws, if you are good at your job. So, he can’t keep a civil tongue in his head while doing odd jobs in dilapidated apartment blocks, but he knows one end of a wrench from another and he’s a hard worker.

Then he’s summoned to his hometown, narrowly missing the death of his father, and needing to break the news to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When his brother’s will names him as the boy’s guardian, Affleck will do anything to avoid staying in Manchester by the Sea.

So far, so Hallmark. Just imagine the TV movie version of this story, where ill-matched handyman and teenage tearaway discover that despite their early clashes, actually they both need each other. Ugh. But Lonergan’s handling of the material is far more subtle, restrained and powerful. Of particular note is the flashback structure. Ultimately, we come to realise that the problem is not the sudden and unexpected burden of quasi-parenthood, nor is Affleck’s refusal to relocate sheer stubbornness. The whole town is full of ghosts, and some of the memories unearthed by his visit are truly ghastly.

So, the film nips back and forth along the timeline, but – emphasising that at any moment the lead character can be confronted with another grim reminder of horrendous past decisions – there is no visual distinction between then and now, nor any overt cue that a flashback has begun or ended. This makes for an initially confusing watch, but once I got used to the rhythms of Jennifer Lame’s editing, and once the jigsaw started to come together, everything made perfect sense.

That freed me to admire the crystal clear digital photography by Jody Lee Lipes, making the every-present cold feel absolutely real. And the powerhouse performances from Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams doing a great deal with not very much as Affleck’s ex-wife. And there are flashes of humour too – notably a lovely cameo from Matthew Broderick of all people, as well as Hedges’ endless quest to bed either or both of his girlfriends.

So, if the scope of the movie is not terribly broad, then the depth of the writing and the acting largely makes up for it, and although this isn’t a movie to watch and re-watch, it’s certainly a moving and effective piece of work.

Lion

Lion similarly doesn’t try to encompass anything more than the plight of a handful of people in a peculiar situation, but also like Manchester, on the whole it succeeds very well. Considering the pitch – Saroo, adopted by a white Australian family when he was only six years old, in his early adult life suddenly needs to reconnect with his origins in India and risks alienating his adoptive family – it would seem “obvious” to begin with marquee names Dev Patel (Saroo) and Nicole Kidman (his adoptive mother) and have the audience feel Saroo’s confusion and anguish along with him.

In fact, about the first hour of the movie concerns Saroo’s early life in India. We meet his brother, mother and sister and see exactly how he came to be separated from them, thousands of miles away from home, unable even to speak the local language. This whole section of the film works brilliantly, and the terrible details of his accidental removal from everything he knows are worked out with remorseless precision.

Sunny Pawar is astonishing as the young Saroo. Shot after shot depicts him furiously running away from some kind of danger, like a pint-sized Tom Cruise (insert your own joke here), tiny fists pumping, fierce little face set in grim determination. When he evades what were probably people traffickers and ends up at an orphanage, the tension ebbs out of the film a little, but the details of his arrival in Australia are some of the most affecting sequences. Kidman, barely on screen for more than twenty minutes, seizes every opportunity she is given, and her quiet outpouring of love for the little boy in her bathtub, who can’t yet speak her language, is incredibly moving.

Dev Patel – suddenly brawny, rangy and hairy, quite unlike the powerlessly slight figure he cuts for much of Slumdog Millionaire – also does well as the grown-up Saroo, and the early scenes of him trying to figure out just what had happened to him all those years ago are effective, but here’s where it becomes clear why this movie needed that long first act. There isn’t really enough story to keep the momentum going after Saroo makes his decision to try and Google Earth his way back to his origins.

Rooney Mara is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, largely because he’s not letting her in on what he’s trying to do. And the damage done to his relationship with his Australian family is undermined because the filmmakers – somewhat letting the truth get in the way of a good story – have included his brother Guddu, adopted a year or so after Saroo. Guddu’s mental health problems already mean that his family unit is under stress, and the film can’t make up its mind whether Saroo trusts or resents Guddu, so this portion of the movie represents a significant dog-leg, effectively marking time until Saroo can be permitted to solve the puzzle of his beginnings.

When – finally! – Saroo makes it to India, the film pulls out of the dive and really delivers a cathartic ending, emphasised by photos and video of the real Saroo, Sue Brierley and others, and with an absolutely brilliant title card punchline. It’s tremendously emotional stuff, handled beautifully by director Garth Davis, making his feature debut.

Not quite as complete as Manchester by the Sea, then, but still well worth seeing, especially for the opening hour.

Hacksaw Ridge

I don’t really like war movies.

Of course, there are exceptions – Saving Private Ryan (mainly for the Omaha Beach scene), Paths of Glory (absolutely devastating) and, er, does Casablanca count?

But, by and large, tales of heroism behind enemy lines, brilliant military stratagems dreamed-up by inspired generals, or the bonding of boy soldiers who should never have been sent to the front lines, all leave me cold. And the wave of seventies and eighties Vietnam films similarly left me unstirred. No thank you Platoon, I’ll leave after the Russian Roulette scene The Deer Hunter, you’re not doing it for me most of Full Metal Jacket, enough already Casualties of War.

So, maybe I was never going to like Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who nevertheless signs up to serve as a combat medic in World War II and ends up saving the lives of dozens of men on the titular ridge at Okinawa. But honestly, Mel Gibson’s film is a total mess, tonally incoherent, riddled with inconsistencies, and clearly glorifying the very violence that its hero is so determinedly opposed to.

The first act of the film, sketching in Doss’s home life in Virginia, is pretty corny movie-of-the-week stuff. We begin with a very clumsy flash-forward, flash-back, flash-forward opening, seemingly designed to ensure that nobody expecting a military bloodbath panics that they’ve walked through the wrong door, while scooping up a supposedly key childhood incident which is never picked up on again (a later incident is drafted-in where this one presumably was meant to go). Then we follow Doss’s journey from somewhat misfitting youngster to eager recruit.

But Gibson keeps emphasising all the wrong things. He can’t even shoot Doss and his new girlfriend (the preternaturally beautiful Teresa Palmer) having their first kiss without trying to have them both killed in road traffic accidents. And it’s absolutely baffling when his dad (Hugo Weaving, wasted) tells him that his problem has always been that he has to ponder and pray on every little decision before acting – since up till now all we have seen is him being headstrong to the point of reckless. Later, in the training scenes, he will be resolute and steadfast and in the extended climax in Okinawa he will be decisive and focused. This ponderous indecision is simply not a part of his character. It’s almost as if the script was assembled from multiple drafts by choosing pages at random.

In the middle section, every cliché of the Army Boot Camp is wheeled out. The men are giving amusing quirks and cheeky nicknames so that we can keep them straight when they start getting sliced up by Japanese bullets (this doesn’t work). And Vince Vaughan of all people essays a hugely uninteresting take on the shouty drill sergeant who really only wants the best for his men.

But the conflict between a conscientious objector, who refuses to even touch a rifle but who nevertheless wants to join the Army to serve as a medic on the front lines, should make for a fascinating battle-of-wills – even if presented with these over-familiar tropes. But again, the key scenes evade Gibson’s camera. Doss repeatedly asserts that he was told by the recruiting officers that he would not have to handle firearms, but since we didn’t see this scene, we have no way of knowing whether or in what manner this undertaking was given. So rather than seeing him as a wronged man, a pawn mislead by the great machine of war, it’s tempting to see him as just naive or worse a simpleton not worth rooting for.

In the end, the stage is set for a court martial, but once again this is handed in the most clichéd way imaginable, with a “hail Mary” piece of key evidence arriving at the eleventh hour causing all charges to be immediately dropped with smiles and handshakes all round. For all I know, this is exactly the war things happened (although I doubt it) but events are presented with zero verisimilitude.

Act Three is the main event, Hacksaw Ridge itself. Take the ridge, you take the city. Take the city, you take the country and win the war. But the dastardly Japs have claimed many brave American lives already and this won’t be easy. It’s tempting to compare the gruesome battle scenes which follow to Spielberg’s handling of the Normandy Beaches in Saving Private Ryan, but while Gibson’s film handily exceeds the Tom Hanks movie for viscera, brutality and ghastly sound effects, it totally lacks Spielberg’s perfect balance between the fog of war and the demands of narrative clarity. Spielberg’s sequence is precision storytelling. Gibson’s version is a blood-spattered roller coaster.

When the American forces are cut to pieces and have no option but to retreat, brave Private Doss drags the wounded to safety and lowers them off the ridge. This selfless act of heroism is entirely true and it’s with genuine humility and shame that I watch my soft hands type these words. What that man did on that ridge is absolutely remarkable, but the film which was intended to honour his noble deeds continues to lose its footing in these crucial moments.

Firstly, as noted, Gibson succumbs to the temptation to make the battle scenes thrilling, which means that the film fails utterly as a parable about the horrors of war (should that point need making again). Secondly, the moral complexity of Doss’s position is completely overlooked. War is presented as a necessary tool to achieve global stability and the mission of the American forces is one of truth and rightness. When Doss drags Vaughan on a makeshift sled while the other man sprays bullets from a submachine gun behind him, we’re supposedly meant to punch their air, or cheer or something. I just thought this was a ridiculous spectacle belonging to nonsense like The Fast and the Furious, not a serious Oscar-winning movie confronting the realities of warfar.

In big ways and small, Gibson presents the Americans as all-too flesh and blood humans, whose lives would be deeply mourned if they were lost. But the Japanese are presented as boogie-men who exist only to imperil the lives of Our Brave Heroes.

This can be seen not only in their stereotypical presentation (when they are finally defeated, they even commit hari-kiri) but in more subtle ways as well. None of what they say is subtitled. Their faces are almost never clearly seen. Sometimes their whole bodies are obscured by smoke, but even when they emerge from the mists, the lighting and grading conspires to hide their eyes, or mute their features completely. They are alien, separate, other, killable. Doss does lower a couple of Japanese wounded off the ridge, but we never see them and we are later told they “didn’t make it” leaving open the question of whether or not American surgeons would have operated on them or not.

And the muddled writing hasn’t gone away either. Holed up for the night, Captain Glover marvels at Doss’s continued refusal to handle firearms. “Any sane man would want a rifle,” he exclaims. Doss quips in return “Well, I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough, except that an hour earlier, I watched this same Captain Glover attempt to drum Doss out of his platoon on the grounds of insanity, in response to which Doss very cogently argued for his sanity, and this was the conclusion reached by the psychiatrist assessing him who then made his report back to – you guessed it – Captain Glover. Again, I can only assumed no-one was paying attention to which draft was being shot today.

Andrew Garfield, seemingly channelling Tom Hanks not as Captain Miller but as Forrest Gump, does well enough with what he’s given, but even he and a parade of talented Australian character actors, can save this nasty jingoistic propaganda piece from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Five down, four to go.

Oscars 2017 – and La La Land

Posted on February 7th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

At the time of writing, I’ve seen four out of nine of the nominees. Here’s a quick assessment of the runners and the riders, and then I’ll post some more reviews.

Arrival: Cerebral science fiction with a cracking central performance from Amy Adams but zero chance of winning the main prize. Longer review here.

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in 1950s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is also up for Best Supporting Actress. Well-reviewed but not getting the kind of buzz it needs to win.

Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson directs a number of other Aussies in a World War II movie based on a true story. Again, well reviewed but not really a contender.

Hell or High Water: Clint Eastwood directs and Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine star in the Western crime thriller which completely passed me by on its initial release, but which I’m hoping to find at an art cinema somewhere before resorting to iTunes.

Hidden Figures: Second true story on the list, this time that of the social and racial issues surrounding the largely unsung women of colour working on the maths behind the moon landing. Not a front-runner but I wouldn’t right it off completely, especially after its cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

La La Land: Festooned with awards, this is Damien Chazelle’s bubblegum follow-up to his brilliant debut Whiplash. By any measure, the one to beat.

Lion: Third true story, this time a family drama focusing on adoptive Australian Dev Patel’s quest to rediscover his Indian heritage with attendant social and racial issues.

Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck leads a very strong cast in this family drama which also explores social issues in contemporary Boston. Kenneth Lonergan’s film represents the best that the La La Land haters can hope for.

Moonlight: But don’t write-off Moonlight either. Mahershali Ali is the most recognisable face in this unstarry cast assembled to essay this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in contemporary Miama.

So, this is very much a list of two halves. Four films which represent adventure and derring-do of one sort or another. Four films which represent smaller more personal stories, including as noted, explorations of social and racial issues.

And then there’s La La Land.

Okay, let’s start with Damien Chazelle’s film taken purely on its own merits. I’m a sucker for Hollywood musicals and I regard the current TV trend towards musical numbers as a very positive and happy thing. I thought Whiplash was a fascinating and largely excellent piece of work, and I was absolutely ready to be charmed by the follow-up – and by-and-large I was.

The opening number is delightful and the leads are sketched in efficiently and playfully, with just enough time-jumping shenanigans to keep me on my toes, but not so much that it becomes distracting and show-offy. I don’t find Seb’s passion for jazz or his need to explain it to others offensive or insufferable, and I can forgive the occasionally iffy singing, especially when the dancing is largely very successful. And I defy anyone to not leave the movie humming Justin Hurwitz’s music.

For the most part, the tone is very carefully balanced – just enough sweetness and naiveté to sustain the confection of the musical genre; just enough real-life cynicism and acid to make it play in 2017. And the two leads do tremendous work. Chazelle repeatedly frames Emma Stone’s preternaturally expressive face very close-to and just lets his camera absorb the play of emotions across her features. And if Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly giving Winona Ryder a run for his money, then when the camera rests on his far more stoic physiognomy, there’s always something going on behind the eyes.

There are quibbles. When both parties get everything they dreamed-of, the details don’t entirely hang together, nor does the cost (they have to give up on each other) quite counter-balance the sugariness of Cinderella twist. And their parting is a little too comfortable and mature for their not-quite-reunion to have the kind of bittersweet tang that it really needed. But overall this is a perfectly inoffensive and rather winning piece of film-making, which shows that Whiplash was no fluke and that Chazelle is a singular artist whose career will be well worth watching.

But is it one of the top ten best films of the year? Well, that seems a bit of a stretch, even given that the Best Picture nominees frequently contain works of hugely varying quality. For it to have received more Oscar nominations than any other film this year seems very surprising. And for it to have equalled the record for the most nominations of any film ever is nothing short of ludicrous. With so many true life stories, so many intimate family dramas and so many explorations of social issues to choose from, faced with a world which seems to be rapidly heading towards a Twitter-fuelled Armageddon, the Academy appears to have voted for pure, flimsy, gossamer escapism.

Frankly, who can blame them?

Culture round-up early 2017

Posted on February 1st, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, for some time now, my new role as podcast producer has made updating this blog very difficult, and in the light of the ghastly developments in UK and world politics, my half-assed views on TV shows and movie seem hardly relevant. But the world keeps turning and since I’ve been to see a few movies and things, I may as well try and keep up my record.

So, let’s start with the Doctor Who Christmas Special. One reason for my not reviewing this at the time is that it was basically fine. Nothing terribly wrong, but nothing terribly exciting either. As writer, Steven Moffat reigned in most of his worst excesses, Ed Bazalgette frames it all with professionalism and style, real (north) American Justin Chatwin and faux American Charity Wakefield are both convincing and Matt Lucas was far less irritating than we might have feared.

Even the one big error simply duplicates a mistake made in pretty much every superhero movie ever shot, which is the physics-defying fantasy of magic catching hands. A person falling off a building will hit the floor and be made to stop very suddenly, and the impact will cause them severe damage. The kinetic energy they give up when their acceleration towards the ground suddenly ceases has to go somewhere. However, in superhero movies and in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, no such problem exists if the thing which the falling person (or object) collides with is a person’s hands. When Grant catches the ship, it stops just as suddenly as if it had hit the ground, but mysteriously with no damage to Grant, the ship or any of its occupants. Other than that, absolutely fine. Four stars.

Next let’s turn to Arrival, the cerebral science-fiction slow-burn movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Dennis Villeneuve which depicts the international response to a number of alien obelisks which descend without warning on planet Earth. Putting so much emphasis on Adams’ painstaking attempts to decipher the alien language is undoubtedly gutsy and for me in pays off handsomely, drawing me in to the puzzle as the various military powers across the globe get increasingly twitchy.

The central twist is a little over-familiar for those of us who have seen more than half-a-dozen science fiction films, but it’s artfully concealed and bolstered by excellent performances, from a luminous Adams on down. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which more later.

And finally, let’s tick off Rogue One. I’m not really a devoted Star Wars nerd, which meant that the number of “Easter Eggs” I noticed was not excessive, although I gather that they come at the rate of about two a minute if you really know your Force from your elbow. The tactic of alternating “saga” movies (like The Force Awakens) with “anthology” movies seems like a smart one and by inserting a narrative into the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope seems like an excellent way to start things off.

And so, this is not quite the Star Wars we’re familiar with. No opening crawl! No John Williams! No wipes! On-screen captions to identify the planets we’re visiting. And early on, it’s all a bit clunky, as we whip from planet-to-planet in search of the film’s plot. As the characters start to establish themselves, and the humour and adventure comes to the fore, things begin to improve, and the team assembled around Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso all get some great moments, especially Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed droid K-2SO, even if Jones herself can’t quite match up to the astonishing Daisy Ridley.

But the narrative momentum isn’t sustained, as the plot ties itself in knots to prevent us from getting to the last act too soon. I swear when they meet up with Jyn’s father, I can actually hear two different drafts of the film fighting each other, as the person Jyn trusted to deliver her to her father, whose message the rest of the film depends on her hearing, has a crisis of confidence and decides not to betray her by killing him anyway. Badguy Krennic then kills all of his men but not him and then rebel bombers blow him up anyway! Not exactly a clean narrative line!

In the final mission to get the plans out of the Imperial base, however, things improve enormously as director Gareth Edwards manages not just to summon up the spirit of the original trilogy, but to finally give his movie the singularity of purpose it seemed to struggle for earlier. And I have to admire both the commitment to the reality of the suicide mission and the neat plugging of the original film’s most glaring plot hole.

Everyone seems to have their own opinion about the digital Cushing and Fisher avatars which appear throughout the movie. For me, the brief glimpse of digital Leia worked fine. But the continual featuring of the CGI Tarkin stretched the envelope well-past breaking point. The dead eyes and weird mouth and imperfect vocal impression were a constant distraction and I was left with an appreciation of just how wide and featureless the uncanny valley truly is.

A full round-up of the 2017 Oscars will be here soon.

Moving to the Cloud

Posted on October 6th, 2016 in Technology | No Comments »

Well, hello again.

With my new life as a podcast producer, I seem to have next-to-no time available for blogging, and since the Oscars have been and gone (although they are coming up again soon) and we have no new series of Doctor Who this year, nothing has been drawing me towards the keyboard.

But, here’s a quick update regarding my digital entertainment.

We’re currently doing-up our loft, and planning on moving the TV upstairs and converting the existing TV room into a dining room. This means that there will be much less room for DVDs but of late I have found myself very reluctant to pick a DVD off the shelf, or even to buy a new movie on DVD. Buying on iTunes, or watching on Netflix just seems so much more convenient. Imagine having to get up, find a box, open the box, fish out the disc, open the drawer of the DVD player, put the disc in – Christ, it’s like the dark ages.

Surely, the right thing to do is to convert all of these existing DVDs to digital form and then play them back through the Apple TV…? Well, yeah.

Let’s look at what I wanted to achieve doing this.

  • Have copies of movies and TV shows I’ve bought on DVD available on my home network.
  • Preserve extra trailers, outtakes, documentaries.
  • Preserve commentary tracks, trivia subtitles and other elements in the main feature itself.
  • Be able to put all physical DVDs out of sight, out of mind, knowing I have high quality digital versions available on-demand.

Assuming disc space is no object (more on that later) one obvious solution would be to rip complete copies of the DVDs to .ISO files, maybe throwing away features I’m certain I don’t want, but preserving complete copies of the whole disc structure. This would mean that I definitely wasn’t trading down in terms of quality and the handful of discs which use wonky things like seamless branching would be viewable, but I don’t have an easy way of viewing those files with my current set-up.

Some time ago, a lot of my TV-watching was via a Windows Media Centre PC, connected to a NAS drive, and one reason why I didn’t jump to upgrade to an Apple TV was that this device had no ability to move files, even MP4s, from a NAS to the TV without going via a PC running iTunes, which firstly sounded a bit more Rube Goldberg than I wanted and secondly never actually worked whenever I tried it.

Acquiring the new fourth-generation Apple TV, with its emphasis on apps, also meant that much of my TV watching was via iTunes, Netflix or Hulu (since my Apple TV is firmly of the opinion that it is located somewhere in Delaware). So, I only fell back on downloaded files sent to my NAS when I couldn’t find the show or movie available to purchase or on a subscription anywhere. When this situation did arise, having tried a few different options, I settled on an app called Infuse which seemed very adept at not just playing back all sorts of files but downloading artwork and meta data too. However, Infuse is not at all willing to play back .ISO files (and in any case, part of the joy of this virtual library would be freedom from elaborate menus and unskippable copyright warnings) so some other system was going to be necessary.

When I asked Facebook friends what I should do, the most popular answer by far was Synology plus Plex. I had played around with Plex at the same time as I first installed Infuse, but it suffered from the same problem as the old Apple TV. Since my WD NAS drive is a fairly limited device, it can’t run the Plex software itself, which means I have to run Plex on my PC and then hook the Apple TV up to the PC and blah blah blah. Having looked into this further, the Synology plus Plex option does seem like the best choice, but fairly expensive; probably north of £500 (depending on the capacity and RAID option). I wanted to see if I could at least get started with what I had: my WD NAS drive and Infuse.

This brings up the issue of how to rip the DVDs and how to preserve all the features I wanted. Some years ago, when I regularly ripped DVDs to watch on my iPad (instead of downloaded content from iTunes) I remember having to choose exactly which audio and subtitle track I wanted (resulting in “burned-in” subtitles on the ripped file) but these days, it’s much easier to create MKV or MP4 files with multiple audio and subtitle tracks built in, and Infuse has no problem switching between these, so that part seemed covered. The final choice was whether to re-encode or not.

I downloaded Handbrake, which I’d used many times before, but always found it rather cryptic and awkward, and gave it Tim Burton’s Batman to play with. My laptop coughed and whirred for a very long time before eventually spitting out a very watchable 2Gb MP4 file complete with optional commentary track, which Infuse was delighted to display on my Apple TV (or indeed my iPad).

I then tried a much simpler-looking, although no less powerful, product called MakeMKV which has a very simple interface and which seems to chew through DVDs of all makes and stripes without a murmur. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t attempt to re-encode the video data on the DVD, it just pours it into the MKV container (again with whatever audio and subtitle tracks you want or don’t want). This results in a larger file, but also means that with my fairly inexpensive HP Envy laptop with its new USB3 DVD drive (twenty quid off Amazon) can create a movie file in about 20 minutes instead of the two hours it took Handbrake.

And now that Virgin Media have upgraded my equipment, and I have Wi-Fi through the whole flat instead of just within twenty yards of the router, throwing big files across the network is quick-and-easy too. It seems to work much better to rip the movie to my local disc and then copy it to the NAS, but the copying only takes an extra ten minutes and can be done while the next movie is ripping. I make folders on the NAS for each movie and add the special features that I want to the same folder and on Infuse, I can see the movie and the appropriate extra features all on one screen. Nice.

So, the process is underway, with a few caveats. Firstly, the movies I’m ripping are now around 4Gb in size (blu-rays can stay on the shelf for now) and my NAS is only 2Tb. So I may very well run out of space before I run out of movies (I have around 600 DVDs, many of which are box-sets, and that doesn’t include my complete set of Doctor Who DVDs). Buying a second similar NAS would be fine and inexpensive, but I would have to have some sensible way to decide what went on what drive because Infuse will not merge the two libraries.

Secondly, one NAS (or even two) and no RAID means no redundancy and no back-ups. If there’s a drive failure or a flood or a power surge, then all my work could be undone. Of course, I’ll still have the discs, but ripping them all is going to take months, maybe a year – not something I want to do twice. So, the long-term plan has to be some kind of Synology box or similar, but for now I’m just going to see how long it takes me to rip my current collection, while they are still conveniently close to hand.

Finally, ripping without re-encoding has generated a few special features which look nastily interlaced when played back via Infuse, but so far I’ve been able to deal with these by running them through Handbrake and it hasn’t affected any main features yet.

There will no doubt be Oscar reviews and previews soon.

UPDATED TO ADD

At the time of writing, I have got to H but that leaves out a lot of TV show box-sets, all the Disney animations and all the Doctor Who DVDs as well as the ones already downgraded to an overflow shelf, but things are going smoothly. It would be a huge bummer to lose all this work of course, and my new 6Tb WD MyCloud is still not a RAID system, so I currently have no back-ups save the discs themselves. However, in theory Amazon Drive offering literally unlimited cloud storage for £55pa is the answer. I say in theory because in practice, as soon as I began the back-up process, my Virgin router immediately killed my internet connection, even when I was throttling the upload bit-rate to a stupidly low level. The solution eventually became a new router (this one) with the Virgin “Super Hub” demoted to modem only. Now slinging big files around the network is even quicker, with the process of moving the 600Gb or so of files already ripped from one NAS to the other achieved overnight with Windows Explorer (definitely not the fastest way of doing it). And testing the upload to Amazon, it seems stable, but I’m going to focus on ripping for now, and make the uploading a separate (no doubt months-long) project.

Victoria Wood

Posted on April 22nd, 2016 in Culture | No Comments »

victoria wood

I’m writing this on Friday 22 April, two days after hearing the dreadful news of the death of Victoria Wood.

A lot of my time recently has been spent on producing the Guilty Feminist podcast. One of my tasks for today was to do the final edit on our next episode, about Representation. Hosts Deborah and Sofie and guest Margaret Cabourn-Smith hilariously and accurately skewer the lack of women and other diversities on most television comedy shows. I want to say a few words here about the debt which they and others owe to Victoria Wood.

The twelve episodes of As Seen on TV (and one special) which she created in the 1980s are some of the best British television sketch comedy since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s not always appreciated that whereas shows like The Two Ronnies or Not the Nine O’Clock News employed armies of writers, Victoria Wood wrote every word of every episode on her own.

As well as crucifyingly funny sketches featuring a brilliant supporting cast, these episodes also included Victoria Wood performing blistering stand-up comedy. Despite all of the issues which face female stand-up comedians today, many of which are discussed on the Guilty Feminist, it’s nevertheless true that when today’s teenagers turn on the television, they can see people such as previous Guilty Feminist guests: Sara Pascoe, Shappi Khorsandi, Jo Caulfield or Roisin Conaty. Women, performing stand-up comedy alongside their male counterparts.

But in 1984, when As Seen on TV was first transmitted, stand-up comedy on British television was pretty much exclusively male and much of it was still mired in the working man’s club comedy of the 1970s. The alternative comedy revolution had begun, but it was still in its infancy and still very much a boys club. The Young Ones (starring five men) had only just gone out. Saturday Live (with only male stars among its regulars) was still a year away. French and Saunders wouldn’t get their own show until 1987.

So, when it comes to women performing stand up comedy on television, the only role models for Victoria Wood would have been vague memories of Joyce Grenfall, or people like Jim Davidson, Stan Boardman and Bernard Manning. Possibly she’d managed to see Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller or Elaine May, who knows? And yet she managed to create – seemingly out of nowhere – a style of stand-up comedy which today still seems completely modern. She was personal and confessional, but never needy or neurotic, satirising the mores of contemporary life but still happy to make herself the butt of the joke. Whereas shows like The Young Ones, as brilliant and ground-breaking as they were, have dated rather badly, Victoria Wood’s comedy still seems amazingly fresh. Of her contemporaries, I would say only Dave Allen can even come close to matching her.

She was followed, in pretty short order, by dozens of others; many still working, some all-but forgotten: Jo Brand, Donna McPhail, Jenny Eclair, Rhona Cameron, Helen Lederer, Jenny Lecoat, Morwena Banks and many more. But Victoria Wood blazed the trail which Sofie and Deborah are following to this day, managing to be not just the first female but for years the very best comedian on British television, man or woman.

I can’t quite believe she’s gone. We are dedicating the next episode of the Guilty Feminist to her.

Victoria Wood. RIP.

Oscars 2016: Predictions

Posted on February 28th, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars! And I will be running my usual sweepstake for a larger-than-usual gathering as we stay up in our jim-jams to watch the fun. Although competitors are encouraged to submit their answers without looking at what others have plumped for, I’m going to publish my predictions now. My track record is hardly unblemished, but nevertheless here’s what I think.

Best Picture

The Revenant is sweeping all before it. Despite a surge in support for both the excellent and precisely-judged Room and the worthy-but-dull Spotlight, it’s quite clear that nothing is going to stop Leo sleeping inside a dead horse. Not my favourite of the year (I can’t decide between Room and Mad Max) and a film I admire rather than love, but it’s certainly extraordinary in a year when many of the nominees are rather run-of-the-mill.

Best Director

Again, will almost certainly go to Iñárritu, although there is just a chance that George Miller could nick it if we have one of those years where Best Director and Best Picture go to different movies.

Best Actor

Redmayne, Fassbender, Damon and Cranston need not even bother to write a speech. This is Leo’s.

Best Actress

There’s a lot of Academy love for Cate Blanchett, whose performance in Carol really is something special, but I both hope and expect Brie Larson to take this one. Charlotte Rampling appears to have pissed in her own chips but I did hear very good things about 45 Years.

Best Supporting Actor

Obviously, Mark Rylance gave the best performance out of these five, but soft-hearted Academy voters are going to give this to Stallone. Spare a thought for Domnhall Gleeson, appearing in four Oscar nominated films this year (The Revenant and Brooklyn both nominated for Best Picture plus Ex Machina nominated for Screenplay and Star Wars nominated in various technical categories) but failing himself to pick up an acting nod.

Best Supporting Actress

This one is harder to call. I’m pretty sure it won’t be Rachel McAdams who doesn’t get enough to do in Spotlight, but honestly you could make a good case for any of the other four. I’m going to go for Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl but also absolutely incredible in Ex Machina.

Best Original Screenplay

Again, a number of worthy contenders, and white guilt might force the Academy to hand this to Straight Outta Compton – although I hope they realise that both credited writers are white! I can also see Bridge of Spies and Ex Machina winning here, but I think Spotlight just has the edge.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This probably deserves to go to either Room or Carol, but I think the sheer novelty of the construction of The Big Short will take Adam McKay all the way to the stage.

Those are my predictions – I’ll post again tomorrow and let you know how I did.

 

Oscars 2016: The Big Short and Trumbo

Posted on February 21st, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

big short

Trumbo’s Oscar-buzz faded quite rapidly, and so it’s not up for Best Picture, but Deborah and I nevertheless took the opportunity to double-bill it with The Big Short in the delightful faux-hipster environs of the recently-opened Picturehouse Central near Piccadilly Circus. They make an interesting pair – both true life stories of poor decision-making among the America’s rich and powerful and both helmed by directors known for comedy for whom this is a more dramatic piece of work.

The Big Short is undoubtedly the more interesting of the two. Based on Michael Lewis’s excellent book of the same name, it has to deal with several elements that make it tricky to package into a two-hour entertainment. The first is the fact that there were several independent groups of people who all hoped to make a profit by placing a “bet” on the housing market collapsing rather than booming (a “short” rather than a “long” position). Any one of these might provide a traditional protagonist, with some kind of recognisable “arc” through the piece, but director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) wants to include everyone from the book.

Then there’s the problem that much of the book is basically a lecture about the workings of Wall Street in the early 2000s. Lewis’s style is breezy and informal, and he has a great talent for picking out the key details and keeping the humour and character stuff to the fore, but there’s still a lot of factual information to take on board. To begin with, McKay populates the cast with a range of strong comedy actors who can fill up this vast array of characters with their own tics, quirks, improvised put-downs and face-pulling (Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling lead the way, but we also get Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan and many more). But he also gives most of them permission to address the audience, either in voice over or by directly talking to the camera, sometimes to emphasise what has just happened, other times to flatly contradict it. And then, he wheels out celebrity cameos to give brief explanatory lectures.

The narrative is so totally extraordinary that this kind of approach does seem in keeping. Allied to this is the need for the audience to empathise with these people who – even if they aren’t quite as dumb or quite as venal as the rest of their breed – are nevertheless hoping to profit tremendously from an economic disaster which will ruin the lives of countless millions.

Sometimes this need to inject a shot of vinegar into the brilliantly coloured candy of the movie is handled clumsily, as when Brad Pitt is forced to lecture his two young neophyte investors about their inappropriate jubilation. Elsewhere, it’s more subtle. Early on, Carell’s team goes to visit homeowners who they suspect may have been sold vastly subprime loans. One resident is aghast to learn that his landlord has taken out the mortgage in his dog’s name and has not been keeping up the repayments. Later, the same family is seen living out of their car, which passes without comment.

However, the overall approach boarders on the hyperactive, like an over-excited child always eager to show you yet another new thing and get another reaction out of you. And this creates some disappointingly unintended consequences. McKay is rightly careful not to allow the material to become sentimental, but when Steve Carell’s Mark Baum finally breaks down and talks about his brother’s death to his wife, McKay can’t bear to let the camera rest on his face, and so frantically cuts around the scene, slathering music all over the top. Not only does this mean that Carell can’t show us where the character actually is, but in a movie with precious few female characters as it is this robs Marisa Tomei of her only scene with any emotional power at all. There’s a whiff of misogyny from other quarters as well. Margot Robbie shows up as herself to explain one financial concept – naked in a bubble bath. Male cameos tend to be experts like Anthony Bourdain and Richard Thaler who are allowed to keep their clothes on. All of which suggests that the movie wants to celebrate these awful lifestyles as much as it would like us to think it’s being fearlessly critical of them.

And more familiarity with the true facts tends to breed contempt. When Gosling turns to the camera after one of Carell’s more outré moments and cheekily tells us “This is true – Mark Baum actually did that,” it’s great – until you realise that Mark Baum is a fictional character and while a man called Steve Eisman is said to have uttered the words which Carell used, his backstory has been completely rewritten for the sake of the movie. Should someone else have turned around and pointed that out too? I don’t really know, but I do know that the movie is pretty uneven, albeit also pretty entertaining.

Where does that leave us? Well, The Big Short ultimately I think does do a fair job of telling the story of the credit crunch from an interesting perspective, and the vigorous performances keep the bubbles in the champagne for the most part of the running time. It’s also great to see such an individual and unusual movie get a Best Picture nomination, even if not all of the experimentation worked for me, and even if it doesn’t actually have a hope in hell of winning.

Trumbo is rather more by-the-numbers and suffers from the same problem that plagues a great many biopics. By starting the action in the 1940s and following screenwriter Dalton Trumbo all the way to his return to the Hollwood fold in the 1970s, the filmmakers give themselves an awful lot of ground to cover, with the result that characters pop up and disappear and whole sequences flash by without really having the time to register.

The through-line of Trumbo’s battles with the Un-American Activities Commission (personified mainly by Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper) provides a bit of a thread for these sequences to hang on, but the feeling that this is a series of short films is hard to dispel. So we get Trumbo Picks a Fight, followed by Trumbo Behind Bars, followed by Trumbo Writes for Peanuts, followed by Trumbo’s Script Factory and finally Trumbo and Spartacus, but there’s precious little here that really resonates or illuminates.

What we do get, once again, are some bright performances. Diane Lane gets a little more to do than Marisa Tomei did in The Wife Part, John Goodman is marvellous as ever as schlock producer Frank King, Louis CK does great work as Arlen Hird (one of very few fictional characters), Alan Tudyk is criminally underused as Ian McLellan Hunter, Helen Mirren has great fun as Hopper and Richard Portnow seems born to play Louis B Mayer.

There are also some more recognisable figures resurrected. Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) fussily cuts between old footage and recreated events, but can’t settle on a style for portraying famous people. Most successful is probably Michael Stuhlbarg, who summons up a little of Edward G Robinson’s appearance and manner, but makes no attempt at that extraordinary voice, and so creates a wholly believable character. David James Elliot makes a decent fist of John Wayne’s voice, but looks nothing like him and so comes across as an impressionist. Least successful of all is spindly Dean O’Gorman who has nothing of Kirk Douglas’s burly charisma – and the obvious parallels between Spartacus and Trumbo’s own treatment seem to have evaded all concerned.

But the dialogue is bright and breezy enough, and the film has one last Trumbo card to play – Bryan Cranston in the leading role. With his lean frame, Harry Potter glasses, Terry-Thomas moustache, Hunter S Thompson cigarette holder and Peewee Herman suit, he presents an extraordinary physical presence and Cranston fills him with manic energy and determination while gracefully aging him across the years of the film. It’s an amazing, precisely judged performance and almost makes the whole film worthwhile.