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.

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

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

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

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

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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

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

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

Birdman

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Theory of Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).

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Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.

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The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.

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.

iPad Accessory Round-up

Posted on August 31st, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

As long-term readers may recall (oh, the delusion!), my primary “use case” for my iPad is entertainment on long journeys – videos, ebooks, games (music is more convenient on my iPhone). The longer the journey, the harder it is to manage two key elements, especially where video is concerned: having a long enough battery and having enough choice.

Let’s take choice first. Depending on what kind of iPad you’ve bought, you’ll have 16Gb, 32Gb or 64Gb of storage. Once you’ve installed a few apps, a few ebooks and a few videos, you may find that even 64Gb is gobbled up quite quickly. As a f’rinstance, as each Doctor Who DVD comes out, I rip it in an iPad-friendly resolution (with commentary and trivia text turned on, naturally) and stick it in iTunes to watch at a later date. I’ve got about half-a-dozen I have yet to watch and a new one comes out almost every month. Sometimes more than one, if it’s a boxed set. Each one takes up around 1.5Gb. Add some iTunes movies, some other DVD-rips and pretty soon I’m looking for external storage. Other (lesser) tablets let you plug SD cards or even USB sticks straight in but the iPad is pickier, sad to say.

When I bought my iPad I had the foresight to get the Camera Connection Kit to go along with it. This dongle plugs into the dock connector and then accepts a USB connection to a camera or an SD Card. Images and crucially videos can then be copied off the card for viewing on the iPad. Copied off, notice, so there needs to be room (but existing videos in your library can be deleted to make room).

However, the source and the files need to look exactly like they’ve come off a camera. This means a folder structure something like this DCIM » 100DICAM and then giving every file an 8.3 filename. So your copy of Casablanca needs to be renamed CASABLAN.M4V, or on a really bad day DCM_0001.M4V. Worse, this filename is not visible when you inspect the SD card from within the Photos app – all you have to go on is thumbnail, often black. And folder structures are ignored. Still, it’s a cheap solution, especially if you have some SD cards lying around, and once you’ve copied the right file over, watching from within the Photos app is fine, if a little weird – why can’t I copy it to my media library? Better still, why isn’t the “Open With” option available so I can open a video file in any format using an app like AVPlayerHD.

Other options exist. For a while, I was considering an AirStash. This is a wireless transmitter for the contents of an SD Card which works with a companion iPad app. It’s not expensive, only $100, but hard to get in the UK without the help of Bundlebox and crucially the battery only lasts five hours without a recharge (and you can’t transmit from it while it’s recharging).

In the end, I wound up getting a 320Gb Hyperdrive for $200 which has turned out to share many of the same limitations as the Camera Connection Kit option, but thankfully not all. It’s a kludge of the Camera Connection Kit software, “fooling” the iPad into thinking that it’s importing files from a camera and although it again denies you access to filenames, and tends to provide only black thumbnails, you can have folders and sub-folders on the disk and navigate through them, so I’ve just put each file in a folder which identifies it. I copied my iTunes movie folder on to it, and most movies were already in an appropriately-named folder which saves time. With TV series box-sets, it was a bit more laborious. I had to create a folder called Breaking Bad S2, and then 13 sub-folders, each called Breaking Bad 2.x, each with one episode in. Sounds tedious, but actually it only took a minute or two. When plugged in to a laptop, the Hyperdrive behaves like any other USB drive. Plugged into the iPad with a mini-USB lead, via the Camera Connection Kit – take note, it takes 4-5 minutes to copy a whole movie over, then you can unplug the drive and watch your movie through the Photos app (and delete it when you’re finished to make room if you wish).

Just before I entered my credit card details, I had a quick tour of the site and spotted this little beauty – the Hyperjuice Stand. Now, it’s true I already have a navy blue Smart Cover to prop my iPad up, but that doesn’t stop this being a really, really clever idea. It’s a rubberised stand, lightweight, but just heavy enough to securely hold the iPad in place (360g), at a near vertical angle for watching movies or a flatter angle for typing – but the space inside is filled with battery! 11,000mA of battery which will keep an iPad going for around 16 hours! For only $130 it’s an absolute steal, and because it’s got a standard USB port on it, you can use it to charge or power a great many other devices besides iPads. It charges via a mini-USB connection too, so you can use the same AC adapter as your iPhone, or charge it off your laptop if that’s more convenient.

Having watched my choice of videos, secure in the knowledge that my battery will never run out, and arrived at my destination, I don’t want now to revert to a regular laptop. However, as lovely as the iPad is, it’s hard to type anything as long as, say, this blog post on the on-screen keyboard. So my other purchase was this handsome Aluminium Keyboard Buddy Case, only $49. It pairs quickly with the iPad via Bluetooth and the battery life is very good. Typing is certainly easier than without a physical keyboard, although the keys don’t have quite as much travel as I would ideally like – however it doesn’t really work as a case. I can fold my SmartCover out of the way, but even with it removed altogether, the iPad and the supposed case never snap together securely, they just sort of lie together. I tend to carry them separately in my Troop Brown Canvas Bag.

What toys have you bought for your iPad?

The whole family

At the Cinema: Limitless

Posted on April 25th, 2011 in At the cinema | No Comments »

LIMITLESS
w. Leslie Dixon (novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn) d. Neil Burger
Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert de Niro, Anna Friel

Limitless is a sprawling pharmaceutical fantasy that works handsomely for as long as it can coast on its star’s winning charm, inventive direction and the giddy excitement of its premise, but is slightly let down by a clumsy ending and some lapses in logic.

Struggling writer Eddie Mora (Cooper) is offered a little clear pill known as NZT which, his sleazy ex-brother-in-law claims, will allow him to access 100% of his brain, instead of the mythical mere 20%. Not scenting urban legend bullshit, Mora takes the pill, pulls his landlord’s wife, spruces up his apartment and rattles off ninety brilliant pages of novel in a frenzy of organised creativity until the magic medicine wears off. Now hooked, he goes in search of a further – ideally limitless – supply, and that’s where his troubles really start.

This is all sketched in with admirable economy, and director Burger uses every trick in what must be a fairly hefty book to bring these changes of mental state to life. Sudden close-ups of Cooper’s impossibly blue irises, infinite zoom-ins, shifts in digital grading, animated letters falling from the sky, simultaneous Bradley Coopers multi-tasking, all work well to make cinematic and visceral what might otherwise have been merely conceptual. I found the x-ray movie of him swallowing the pill a little hard-to-take and it’s true that these kind of directorial flourishes can becoming irritating and tic-y if overused, but Burger seems in control of the material – almost to the end.

Before then, Abbie Cornish is winsome but underused. De Niro seems cast largely because his reputation as an actor saves three script pages to build up the character, but he shows up and glowers suitably. A variety of largely unfamiliar faces fill out the remaining roles of sleazy gangsters, smooth executives and bangable babes.

For much of its length, the movie is high on its own giddy concept – there’s nothing Eddie can’t do when pumped up on NZT and the film loves to see his superbrain tackle tough spot after tough spot. Of course, he’s done nothing to earn this, which is why having such a likeable star is so important. And then comes the inevitable crash, but – hopefully without giving too much away (stop reading now if you’re genuinely spoilerphobic) – the movie’s too much in love with its delightful central character and can’t bring itself to punish him in the way we’ve clearly been promised. The filmmakers even wheel in a tastefully uglified Anna Friel to point out just why this can’t last – and then ignore it. It turns out that NZT’s use is rather more widespread, which starts to raise other little awkward questions about who is manufacturing it and why.

Unable to decide whether his hero should pay the price for his hubris or be rewarded for his cunning, director Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon just go ahead and give us a jarringly brutal fight scene to resolve most of the dangling plot strands and then an ambiguous but basically “junkily-ever-after” coda designed to ensure that Eddie won’t have a sudden come-down and so neither will we.

Thoroughly enjoyable, full of charm, wit and invention, but ultimately empty inside the glittery shell and not really sure what it was trying to say. Not every movie has to have a strong moral message (use Western Union) but is it asking too much of a piece of popcorn entertainment to pick a point-of-view and stick to it?

Update #1: Oscars

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

This blog having been sadly neglected, I’m going to put up a few quick posts tying up loose ends. First is the Oscars. My quest to see all ten Best Picture nominees having met with success, all that was left was to watch the ceremony and test the quality of my powers of prognostication.

The ceremony itself was certainly marred by the choice of host. Anne Hathaway is a perfectly charming presence, but was rarely given anything funny to say. James Franco, such a charismatic and fearless actor seemed to be playing the part of stiff and gauche neophyte out-of-his-depth and made me feel rather uneasy watching him moreorless throughout.

On the upside, some of the dopier decisions of ceremonies past had been quietly reversed. Gone was the shepherding of multiple technical award winners on to the stage simultaneously. Gone were the ponderous personal valedictions from five presenters to five acting nominees. Back were the individual musical numbers for Best Song (sort-of).

The awards themselves were fairly predictable. In the technical categories, both Inception and The Social Network did slightly better than some had predicted, raising a question mark over The King’s Speech‘s chances at the top prizes. But stuttering Bertie eventually scooped up Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as it was always bound to. Apparently, my choice of Tom Hooper was anti-consensus, but honestly I only picked him because of the momentum of the movie itself.

Truth be told, it almost certainly wasn’t the best-directed movie of the year – certainly 127 Hours and The Social Network both have stronger claims. Yet, I don’t think it’s fair to right off Tom Hooper’s contribution entirely. Hooper does use the camera and the sound design in interesting and compelling ways. The movie neither looks nor sounds like a TV movie (as An Education did last year, for example) and if, as is generally agreed, Colin Firth pulled off the performance of his career, then surely some of the credit for that can be given to the director?

My only other anti-consensus call was picking Hailee Steinfeld for best supporting actor, which I had serious cause to doubt after watching Melissa Leo in The Fighter but if you make an out-there prediction, and you stick to it, and you’re right – then you’re a genius. Whereas if you dither about and pile up caveats and codicils, then who cares? Of course, Steinfeld did not prevail and Melissa Leo fucking did, not undeservedly.

That’s it till next year. If this blog is still here, we’ll do it all again then.

3D movies – kill or cure?

Posted on August 19th, 2010 in At the cinema | 5 Comments »

3D is back in our cinemas and it’s big business. Cinemas can charge more for 3D movies, 3D movies earn more revenue and – along with monster screens – are another key differentiator for cinema, in this frighteningly modern age of Blu-ray, iTunes and Bittorrent (whatever that is).

Of course, 3D is nothing new, and I don’t want to use this space to reproduce Wikipedia entries about its history, nor whine about it being used badly or inappropriately, nor even do I want to assess its place as another colour for moving picture artists to add to their palette. I want to talk about something more fundamental – what is it?

The briefest of history lessons, just to explain why 3D is suddenly back in our cinemas, and to add a little context. 3D in this sense essentially means delivering two subtly different images to each eye. This can be done in various ways, with the most popular in the twentieth century being the red/blue anaglyph method. This sends a red-tinted image to one eye and a blue-tinted image to the other eye thanks to cardboard glasses. The method is cheap to implement but entails obvious compromise of colour within the images. LCD shutter glasses which blocked all light reaching each eye alternately were briefly experimented with but you can’t give out expensive items of electronic equipment free with breakfast cereal and they need both power and careful synchronisation with the projected image. Neither is ideal, which is why 3D was so niche for so long.

The reason for the current swathe of 3D movie is that two new technologies have caught up with an existing one. The glasses you get given at your local Vue or Odeon today are polarised, which effectively means that half the light enters one eye and the other half enters the other eye. No colour distortion, but a dimmer image, and you can’t just blast twice the light through 35mm film to make up for the shortfall, since twice the light means twice the heat and you’ll melt the celluloid. However, the advent of digital (filmless) projectors combined with hugely reflective metal screens means that polarisation can be deployed without the images being reduced to a murky gloom. Reflective screens + polarised glasses + digital projection systems = $$$ it seems.

And more is to come – 3D TV is on its way, with several lenticular (you know, like those corrugated postcards which seemed to move if you tilted them) systems which send a different image to each eye, provided you sit in just the right position and keep your head still.

But what exactly is the benefit of all of this?

Well, it isn’t 3D except in the very trivial sense that the images you are watching now have an apparent third dimension of depth to add to their existing dimensions of height and width. No, it’s stereoscopy or stereo imagery which is no more like actually being there than a stereo recording is actually like being at a concert.

Let’s start by considering how our brains interpret the three-dimensionality of the world at the moment. Information about how near or far things are comes from three sources.

  • Perspective. Things which are further away are smaller in our field of vision (Dougal) and parallel lines which recede from us appear to converge.
  • Parallax. Things which are nearer to us appear to cross our field of vision more quickly, whereas things which are further away cross our field of vision more slowly. This works even with stationary objects if you move your head. Try it now and notice that your monitor or laptop screen moves through your field of vision much more than the wall behind it.
  • Stereoscopy or stereopsis. The left eye sees a different version of the image than the right eye. The brain automatically combines both images into a single version of reality, giving each element of the image a “depth value”.

Of these three, perspective is present in any photograph of the world, and is obviously a part of any movie, 3D or not. The second, parallax, in the first sense is equally present in any live-action movie and, was a key reason for Walt Disney to create his multiplane camera in the 1930s. However, in the second sense, it is absent from all movies, 3D or not. You can’t move your head and see a different image as you could if you were witnessing the events live. The 3D stereoscopy is an illusion, one which is shattered if you try and interact with the image in even the most trivial way. We are not Luke Skywalker, able to walk around the projection of Princess Leia and see her from whatever angle we please. At least with your “RealD” glasses you can move your head without the image actually falling apart, unlike those lenticular TVs I mentioned earlier (disclaimer: this technology will obviously improve over time and I haven’t sat in front of one myself yet, so I know not whereof I speak – but that’s the prerogative of a blogger, is it not?).

Undoubtedly, 3D stereoscopy can enhance some movies. It can also ruin others (for some insights into what’s going right and wrong see this fascinating series of article by David Bayon on the PCPro blog). But it would please me if there were more realistic descriptions readily available for what is going on. Traditional “2D” cinema creates an illusion of depth through perspective and parallax. People with good vision in only one eye don’t live in flatland and if you close one eye, your ability to – for example – catch a ball will only be very slightly impaired. Stereoscopic movies enhance the depth illusion but do not complete it, and very odd effects can be created when an object which appears to be jutting out towards the viewer, then moves off the edge of the screen.

Stereoscopic movies are probably here to stay and the technology now exists to retrofit stereo into movies shot with a single camera, so we’ll be seeing more of them, not less. But they aren’t now, nor will they ever be as three dimensional as the room you’re sitting in right now. For that, you’ll have to go to theatre.

80 Years of Cinema

Posted on July 11th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 3 Comments »

Here follows a personal list of favourite, significant or just thoroughly entertaining movies, one for each year from 1930 to 2010. I reiterate, this is a personal list, so it is unashamedly Anglo-American for the most part, but I’ve also tried to keep an eye on cinema as a developing art form and include movies which cast longer shadows at the expense of quirkier choices whose appeal to me might be harder to fathom (for example, my absolute favourite movie of 1986 is Little Shop of Horrors but I couldn’t leave out Withnail & I). I’ve also tried to include as many different genres as I can – musicals, comedies, thrillers, police procedurals, westerns and space operas – you’ll find them all here. Finally, when faced with really tough choices, I’ve picked movies which are most typical of their era, which seemed appropriate under the one-film-per-year constraint.

Lists like these tend to generate outraged debate. Good! Let me know what gems I have omitted. If you can be bothered – compile your own list, and fill it full of Kurosawa, Bunel, Bergman, Truffaut and show me up of the Anglo-centric philistine I no doubt am.

1930 Feet First
1931 City Lights
1932 The Music Box
1933 Duck Soup
1934 It Happened One Night
1935 The 39 Steps
1936 The Great Zeigfeld
1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
1938 The Lady Vanishes
1939 The Wizard of Oz
1940 The Philadelphia Story
1941 Citizen Kane
1942 Road to Morocco
1943 Casablanca
1944 Double Indemnity
1945 Brief Encounter
1946 It’s a Wonderful Life
1947 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
1948 Rope
1949 The Third Man
1950 Sunset Boulevard
1951 The Lavender Hill Mob
1952 Singin’ In The Rain
1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
1954 On The Waterfront
1955 The Ladykillers
1956 Forbidden Planet
1957 12 Angry Men
1958 Vertigo
1959 Some Like it Hot
1960 Spartacus
1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s
1962 Dr No
1963 8½
1964 Carry on Cleo
1965 The Sound of Music
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1967 The Graduate
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1970 MASH
1971 Dirty Harry
1972 The Godfather
1973 The Exorcist
1974 The Godfather Part II
1975 Jaws
1976 The Pink Panther Strikes Again
1977 Annie Hall
1978 Grease
1979 Alien
1980 The Blues Brothers
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
1983 Trading Places
1984 Gremlins
1985 Back to the Future
1986 Withnail and I
1987 The Untouchables
1988 Die Hard
1989 The Little Mermaid
1990 Goodfellas
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1992 Unforgiven
1993 Jurassic Park
1994 Pulp Fiction
1995 Sense and Sensibility
1996 Shine
1997 LA Confidential
1998 Saving Private Ryan
1999 The Matrix
2000 Billy Elliot
2001 Amélie
2002 Chicago
2003 Finding Nemo
2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005 The 40 Year Old Virgin
2006 Little Miss Sunshine
2007 Michael Clayton
2008 The Dark Knight
2009 The Hangover
2010 …. to early to say. I hear Inception is good…