Trekaday #114: Star Trek Nemesis

Posted on October 25th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

Star Trek: Nemesis (1.5 out of 5 stars). Insurrection was a disappointment at the box office. There are various numbers floating around the internet but the budget would have been somewhere in the region of $60m. A $117m worldwide gross meant that it might just have scraped into the black, but would probably show as profitable overall once it came out on DVD. A long way from the big money First Contact had made. Unwilling to continue with the same team, Paramount went looking for fresh blood. In as writer was John Logan, then best known for Any Given Sunday and especially the multi-Oscar-winning Gladiator. In as director came Stuart Baird, whose CV in the main chair was pretty thin, but who had worked as editor and second unit director on same acknowledged classics including the original 1978 Superman. He had also never seen a single episode of the show. Well, you could say the same about Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer and Wrath of Khan had turned out pretty well. And besides, John Logan was a fan (maybe too much of a fan…?), Rick Berman was still there, overseeing things, Brent Spiner had contributed some story ideas, so we were probably in good hands. And I remember the advance word on this one being really thrilling. Berman had missed his chance to put out a new science fiction movie in the iconic year 2001, but surely the extra twelve months would guarantee success.

The movie we got is… poor.

All the usual problems are there – it’s the Picard and Data show with five other guys just sort of hanging around the place (including Worf, whose return to the Enterprise is never explained). Afraid of being stodgy and slow-moving like The Motion Picture, it’s full of irrelevant “action beats” which are meant to attract the Die Hard or James Bond audience, but it can’t be just a simple chase movie, so we have a plot which ties itself in knots with doppelgängers of both leading men for entirely different reasons, countdowns to certain doom, and so many things which we’ve seen done better in prior movies – Data’s sacrifice is a reprise of the death of Spock in Khan, finding his head recalls adventures with Mark Twain from the telly show, his having a brother is obviously familiar, Picard goes through old photos like he did in Generations, the Bassin Rift is another version of the Briar Patch (or the Badlands, or the nebula from Khan), and the whole climax is a rip off of the end of Star Trek II, with a much less interesting villain, except when it feels like the end of the previous film, with Picard alone on board the enemy ship trying to stop it from doing the thing. That’s the drawback of hiring people who don’t know Star Trek. They don’t know when they’re falling into well-worn grooves.

Once again, we start with the telly cast in their white togs, enjoying some downtime – in this case celebrating Will and Deanna’s wedding. Neither of them actually gets a line – in fact only Data and Picard speak at all in the first half of the scene. Whoopi Goldberg shows up, and contributes nothing of meaning – the point of the second half of the scene is apparently to hear Brent Spiner singing. Yay. Wil Wheaton filmed a cameo as Wesley Crusher, but it ended up cut. He’s not the only one getting short shrift. Troi and Crusher are in the pre-mission briefing and never speak. In fact, Beverley Crusher gets 11 lines in the whole movie – barely more than Admiral Janeway who appears on a viewscreen and sends the Captain Picard off to meet the main plot.

Remember Jean-Luc Picard – the cultured and curious diplomat who led his crew thoughtfully and compassionately through high-minded adventures for seven years? You can still see him if you squint at the bewildered family man in Generations, the traumatised soldier in First Contact, or the lonely romantic in Insurrection. Here, he’s been replaced entirely by a juvenile thrill-seeker who likes fast cars and gadgets, makes dick jokes to publicly humiliate his bridge officers, and whose idea of respecting the Prime Directive is strafing the locals from the back of his 4×4. Picard is such a lynch-pin of the show that you undermine him at your peril, and there’s almost nothing of him left here. Much of Brent Spiner’s time meanwhile is spent pulling faces and doing silly voices as “B4”. Hope you like that because (along with Picard’s dick jokes) that’s your lot as far as humour goes in this movie.

This all looks good, with decent CG spaceships, strong make-up (mainly, Dina Meyer’s sallow complexion seems to stop at her jawline) and a pounding Jerry Goldsmith score, but the new bridge has a cramped and awkward feel with the first officer’s chair miles away from the captain, and the helm and ops stations hemming in the officers in question. And the character of Shinzon pretty much dooms the whole sorry affair. Tom Hardy has never been worse, and the notion that he was cloned from Picard proves completely irrelevant (people keep telling Picard they’re not the same), and would have been even if Hardy had been able to do a better job (or if they’d got Patrick Stewart to play both roles).

His early scenes negotiating with Picard go nowhere. We know he’s the bad guy because we saw the opening scenes of the slaughter of the Romulan senate. And Picard seemingly does too, because he doesn’t do anything Shinzon wants him to. Good thing too. Then he’d be a dummy as well as reckless and coarse. Compare this to Star Trek VI, where a Starfleet captain sets aside his personal feelings in order to broker a risky peace with the Klingons. Here, a lying Romulan fails to convince a rigid Starfleet captain to attempt a lasting truce with the Romulans. Who comes out of that looking good? And does Shinzon think that dream-raping Troi (another familiar and deeply ick image from the TV show) will increase his stock with Picard? If not, why the hell’s he doing it?

How is the Enterprise able to detect a form of radiation thought impossible? Why does Shinzon invite Picard to tea, let him return to his ship and then transport him back to exactly where he was against his will? In fact, why does any of this happen, because after ten minutes, Picard escapes and gets back to the Enterprise. Why does Shinzon refer to B4 as “bait” when Picard’s trip to Romulus was ordered by Starfleet and has nothing to do with their recent discovery of bits of android? In fact, what does Shinzon want, full stop? How does blowing up the Enterprise with Picard on it help him get the blood he needs to survive? And what does any of that have to do with the coup he organised?

I liked this one even less than Star Trek V. William Shatner’s attempt is a mess, and very very dumb in places, but it feels like Star Trek. This one feels like a straight-to-DVD knock off, in which characters run down space corridors firing guns with both hands. When it tries to be exciting, it’s deeply silly, and when it tries to be dark, it’s just sour – a very far cry from the franchise’s trademark optimism about the future. Brent Spiner’s performance (when he stops playing B4 like a Looney Tunes character) is pretty much the only thing worth watching.

Fans stayed away in droves. It’s the only Star Trek movie not to make a profit, reviews from the mainstream media were unkind, and fans lambasted its lack of understanding of what had made the TV show work. It killed off the adventures of this crew on the big screen. Most of them were never seen in any further Star Trek stories until Star Trek Picard began in 2020 (and the big reunion in 2023). And Star Trek wasn’t seen in cinemas again until JJ Abrams reinvented Kirk and Spock in 2009. You can see why I didn’t want Volume I to end here. Even Stuart Baird never directed another movie.

My summer of blockbusters

Posted on August 4th, 2023 in At the cinema | No Comments »

I remember thinking “uh oh, this COVID thing is really serious” when they didn’t release the James Bond movie as scheduled. Since then, the world of cinema has been in turmoil, and now this feels like the first real summer of movies we’ve had, the first year that the top ten films at the global box office will all be ones I’ve actually heard of, the first time that the logjam was finally cleared, even though at least one of the films on this list was shooting during global lockdowns. I hadn’t necessarily planned to write a summer blockbusters movie round up blog post, but I’ve been going to the cinema a fair bit and I’ve been having a good time, so – for what it’s worth – here’s what I’ve seen and what I thought, and yes, we will be ending with Barbenheimer. These are presented roughly in release order. There may be spoilers, you have been warned.

John Wick Chapter 4 4 out of 5 stars

My introduction to the Wickiverse was watching all three movies back-to-back during a “snow day” and I had the best time. The series becomes more and more absurd as it goes on, and while by the end of the third instalment I found myself missing the lean, taut ferocity of the first film, the action sets pieces are still a thing to behold and the wider universe that the series creates is absolutely fascinating, as soon as one makes peace with the fact that while the world of these films bears a superficial resemblance to our own, it definitely has different rates of employment for professional assassins and different laws of physics (wait till we get to Fast X). What’s remarkable is how much variety they are able to conjure up without really changing the formula overmuch. The best set-pieces here (the early hotel fight, the long overhead shot, the Arc de Triomphe) are some of the most exciting I’ve ever seen (wait till we get to Mission Impossible) and if it isn’t really about anything… well, was that ever the point? MVP: Rina Sawayama who makes an astonishing debut in her first movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3 3 out of 5 stars

I don’t care about Marvel the way I care about some other properties, like Doctor Who or James Bond. A bad James Bond film is a particular tragedy as there tends to be only about one every three years. But if this Marvel movie / TV series / holiday special doesn’t work, well there’ll be another six later this year. Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania I thought had some bright spots and some fun cameos, but managed to squander the promise that Jonathan Majors showed in Loki (and how Kevin Feige must be ruing building all of Phase Five around that particular actor) and eventually collapsed under the weight of its own silliness. This tries to combine some of that same goofy good-time feel, with the same cartoony anything-is-possible vibe and still try and deliver a backstory with real weight and depth of character and theme. It’s an odd mix, and the elements fight with each other as often as they mesh, but it’s still a pleasure to see this team together again. MVP: Will Poulter, who clearly isn’t needed for the plot to work, but is determined to make his every second on screen count.

Shazam: Fury of the Gods 2.5 out of 5 stars

If Marvel is slipping into irrelevance generated at least in part by overabundance of content, DC is suffering from releasing movies which set up stuff we know is never going to be paid off because the James Gunn reset is bearing down on us. Like a lot of part twos, this benefits from not having to walk us through the standard beats of the superhero origin story, allowing us to get straight on with the adventure, but then is weakened because the whole point of this particular character is the gulf between the two personas, which are brought far too close together now that Billy Batson is used to being Shazam. Dijmon Honsou, Helen Mirren, Lucy Lui and Rachel Zegler are fine additions to the cast, but there are too many members of the super team for me to keep them all straight, especially when they’re all played by two actors, so it was hard for me to stay invested. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the end as Wonder Woman. MVP: Skittles.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse 4 out of 5 stars

The first Spider-Verse film was such an astonishing achievement that any attempted to create a follow up looked doomed to failure. And yet what’s fascinating about this film is that it takes the weakness which doomed Fury of the Gods and turns it into a strength. By emphasising the importance of the superhero origin story and making the repetition of that the whole point of the narrative, it manages to say something about mythic storytelling, while being visually eyepopping, terribly funny, tightly plotted and tugging the heartstrings. Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez all return and do excellent work as everyone’s favourite local neighbourhood spider-family and new recruits Jason Schwartzman, Oscar Isaac and Issa Rae all find moments to shine. But nobody told me that this was designed as part two of what is now a trilogy so I found the unresolved ending bewildering. MVP: Daniel Kaluuya whose Spider-Punk should be in every movie from now on. Not every Spider-Man movie. Every movie.

Fast X 3.5 out of 5 stars

Listen, I’m a huge Fast fan and this was a big leap up from the doldrums of F9 and even if there’s a slight sense of fatigue setting in as far too many characters circle the plot hopefully looking for a role in it, and even as far too many of them started off as implacable villains needing only one encounter with the Fasticles to turn them into self-sacrificing goodguys, and even if there seems to be an awful lot of standing around and talking for the first hour – when the action does kick in, it’s pretty impressive, with Hulk director Louis Letterier never giving away that he was essentially brought in to steer the ship after it had set sail. Retrofitting a new villain into the plot of Fast Five (still the high watermark of the franchise, although Seven is pretty banging too) is exactly the kind of dementedly convoluted continuity I’ve come to expect from these films and – what a villain! Jason Momoa is funny, scary, hulking, camp, prissy, absurd and clearly having the absolute time of his life and he’s obviously the MVP. But nobody told me that this was designed as part one of what is now a two-part finale, so I found the unresolved ending bewildering. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the end as Gisele.

The Flash 2 out of 5 stars

Tired? Try being the Flash. Seeing the shadow of the James Gunn reset looming over you? Try being the Flash. Even by the standards of modern superhero blockbusters this is a very busy, noisy film. Faced with a leading actor who is pretty annoying on-screen and pretty reprehensible off it, Warners has opted make a film with an even more annoying version of the character and I have to say, scenes of the older and younger Barry Allens interacting are pulled off with a degree of aplomb from both a performance and a technical standpoint. But the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, generally relies upon everyone involved being as dumb as possible and the few good ideas that are present never cohere into anything meaningful or even all that interesting. Yes, sure, it’s fun to see Michael Keaton back and saying his famous catchphrase “Why don’t we be crazy?” but it all feels re-heated, pointless and dull. Possibly this would all have had more impact if we hadn’t already seen multiverse excursions in Everything Everywhere All At Once, recastings of iconic characters in Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and return appearances by veteran actors in Spider-Man: The Third One with Home in the Title. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the beginning as Wonder Woman. Guys. The trick is keeping her to the end. MVP: Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El. I would have watched a whole movie about Superman’s cousin landing in the Soviet Union instead of America.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tired? Try being an action movie star in your ninth decade, as Harrison Ford is here. The most successful section of the film is the opening, when largely convincing computer graphics return the 80-year-old actor to something like his prime (and when Toby Jones makes a wonderful addition to the supporting cast). But there’s a depressing lack of either innovation or specificity here, and while James Mangold mounts some impressive sequences (one of the best being the very tense sub-aqua scenes, where the primitive 1960s technology really ramps up the anxiety levels) this fails to recapture any of the old magic, and very few of the rest of the supporting cast really register. Shaunette Renée Wilson is a luminous presence who looks as if she’s going to be a key player in the narrative, until she’s suddenly shot dead and never referred to again. Ethann Isidore as Teddy is more often annoying than adorable, and Mads Mikkelson looks like he’s going through the motions. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is given more to do than anyone else – she’s really the only one with anything like a satisfactory arc – and she gives the film everything she’s got, but even she can’t stop the final act from feeling anything other than completely absurd. MVP is Phoebe obviously, but I also want to mention Antonio Banderas who does much with very little screentime.

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One 4.5 out of 5 stars

Having enjoyed past Missions Impossible, especially the third and fourth instalments, nothing could have prepared me for quite how good the sixth film was – it absolutely blew me away. It might be the perfect action film for the twenty-first century. Everything about it just works. So, the pressure was on for this one to succeed. And early on, it seems to have just a little trouble getting the sparks to ignite. A lot seems to be happening around the characters we care about, but not to them or by them. Luckily, this doesn’t last for very long and once the chessboard is set up, and the pieces start merrily colliding with each other, the fun really begins. The now familiar team of Ethan, Benjy and Luther is augmented by the winning unpredictability of the frankly incredible Hayley Atwell, who manages to simultaneously embody complete disbelief at the ridiculous things that the IMF is involving her in, with her own sense of self-possession, self-interest and mischief. It’s a star-making turn for a phenomenal performer and it’s a fantastic new ingredient which freshens up the formula without fighting with it. Like Indiana Jones, the McGuffin here is a little outré but Christopher McQuarrie treats it lightly, and keeps the emphasis on what matters most. This time, I did know that this was part one of two (it very helpfully says “part one” right up there on the screen) but by the time that extraordinary final stunt sequence had concluded I was wrung out, and not the least bit bothered by the presence of a few dangling plot threads. A far cry from the other movies which played the same trick which just stopped in the middle. My only other complaint is that the villain was a bit underpowered, but then this series has only ever had one really top-notch villain (Philip Seymour Hoffman). MVP: Hayley.

Barbie 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a very silly film. It’s disorganised, unruly, and often makes very little sense. It sets up rules and then ignores them. It places great emphasis on where certain characters are and when, and then forgets they ever existed. It seeks to contrast the unreality of Barbieland with the grounded reality of the real world, and then makes some elements of the real world just as loopy as Barbieland. Very few characters have anything like an inner life, or an arc, and you don’t have to wonder what the point is, because it gets spelled out to you with relentless in-your-face clarity. I loved it, and it might be a work of genius.

It’s vital to understand that all the foregoing is perfectly deliberate, just as Gerwig’s decision to split Little Women into two timeframes was, and for all the apparent shenanigans going on here, I believe there’s just as much careful directorial rigour here as there was there. The casting is also perfect, with Margot Robbie sensational as Barbie, Ryan Gosling hilarious as Ken and able support from Helen Mirren, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Will Ferrel, Rhea Pearlman and countless others. Only Kingsley Ben-Adir seemed to be struggling to find the tone – pulling faces when others were just being. I desperately wanted the final credits to include the joke of simply crediting all the Barbies as “Barbie” and all the Kens as “Ken” as was delighted when they did. The “anything goes” approach of this film means that it’s unlikely to resonate deeply inside my soul, but I was thoroughly entertained, I’m thrilled that it exists, and even more thrilled that it looks like it’s going to go on to make a billion dollars at the box office. MVP: a photo-finish between America Ferrera, who maybe has the hardest job of anyone and makes it look easy, and Michael Cera as Allan, whose complete irrelevance eventually comes quite close to being the entire point of the movie.

Oppenheimer 4.5 out of 5 stars

And this is the big one. Big as in 70mm IMAX, 11 miles of film big. Big as in atomic bomb big. Nolan’s films thus far have usually avoided confronting what goes on inside the heads of his central characters: Batman is the costume, Leonard Shelby is defined by his condition, The Prestige is about the tricks, Inception is about the dreamscapes, Dunkirk is about the acts of heroism, rather than who did them and why. The one which tries to deal with who a person is, is one of my least favourites. Who watches 2001: A Space Odyssey and says “You know what would make this better? A daddy-daughter love story.”? No. No, it would make it a hundred times worse. But this film doesn’t present the building of the first atomic bomb as a race against time, or a scientific or engineering problem to be solved, or a political conundrum, although all those things are aspects of the story. It wants to know: who would build such a thing? And what effect would that have on the rest of his life? In a way, it’s new ground for Nolan, who takes sole writing and directing credit for this one.

He couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator than Cillian Murphy, who manages to dig under the surface of the text and unearth a man who goes from nervy student to strident professor to guilt-wracked public figure to quietly malicious political operative. But the film has a lot of ground to cover and in the first third, this felt like the frantic bang-bang-bang pace, which killed Tenet for me, was back, as people marched in and out of rooms, announcing exposition at each other, to the relentless strains of Ludwig Göransson’s ever-present score. Thankfully, after a while, the editing slows down and the feeling of “Last time on Oppenheimer” recedes, and scenes are allowed to breath a little. And there are some remarkable performances here, including a very solid Matt Damon, Emily Blunt bringing much to an underwritten part, Gary Oldman doing his Gary Oldman thing as Harry Truman, and Tom Conti as a cuddly and thoughtful Albert Einstein.

But while the race to build the bomb, leading up to the first test, is absolutely incredible (and it’s great to see this presented as a true team effort, unlike say the absurd The Imitation Game which gave Alan Turing credit for everything that happened at Bletchley Park) and the cut-aways to the senate confirmation and security clearance hearings help fill in other aspects of his character, I do feel that it fundamentally did not work to escalate from the detonation of the world’s first nuclear device to a petty act of political revenge from one embittered man to another. That said, MVP here is clearly Robert Downey Jr whose performance as Lewis Strauss might be the best of his career. I also thought that having Oppenheimer recite his “I am become death” catchphrase during a tits-out sex scene was completely ridiculous, and the kind of thing I’d expect to see in a film like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Right, now I think I need to watch a movie in black-and-white with subtitles about someone who goes for a quiet walk and sees a caterpillar or something.

Trekaday #094: Star Trek Insurrection

Posted on June 28th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

NGM03 Insurrection (3 out of 5 stars). Michael Piller had saved Star Trek once. Could he save it again?

The “Creative Consultant” on DS9 and Voyager, who had turned the ship around back in 1989, was asked to write the screenplay for the third Next Generation film and nobody knew the show and the characters better than he did. His original pitch was a riff on Heart of Darkness and The Magnificent Seven with Picard as a lone figure, desperately defending a benighted group of settlers from a seemingly-invincible foe. As loving retold in his amazing (but unpublished) book on the subject, following endless fretting about what the studio wanted, what the studio thought fans wanted, what Patrick Stewart wanted, what Rick Berman thought Patrick Stewart wanted, what Brent Spiner wanted, what director Jonathan Frakes wanted, and finally what the studio wanted, again, we got… this.

It’s a curious film and one which keeps sliding off my brain. I watched it first on a plane – hardly ideal – and I kept falling asleep half way through and having to go back and find what I missed. When I finally had it on DVD and watched it all the way through, it still struck me as piecemeal and inconsistent. Not maddeningly sloppy the way that Generations is, but light years away from the focused thrill ride of First Contact. The usual criticism of Insurrection is that it feels like an overlong episode of the TV show, and reading Piller’s book, you can see how that happened. His huge movie-sized idea of a story was drawn back into the gravity well of the TV series. But most TNG two-parters have been hugely entertaining, so if Insurrection is just a 100 minute episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, well I can think of a lot worse things to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Let’s give it a spin.

The opening is very unusual for a Star Trek film – all bucolic calm and cheerful domesticity. Star Trek films tend to open with death and destruction (Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan) or catching up with the gang (Search for Spock, Voyage Home, Generations). The calm-before-the-storm is a perfectly fine way to start a story, but not a particularly interesting one. Nor is the revelation that this community is being covertly studied all that shocking or surprising, being familiar from TV episodes like Who Watches the Watchers, while Data-goes-rogue-in-a-pre-Warp-society is a re-run of Thine Own Self. Even the “Briar Patch” is just the nebula from Wrath of Khan with a new name. Part of the problem is that the B’aku society is so blandly generic. TNG figured out what a pre-Warp civilisation in the 24th century would look and feel like and has stuck to it, even though this is going to the backdrop for this whole movie. Even Michael Westmore hasn’t been inspired to give them three noses or six ears or whatever.

Another problem with this opening is that it’s all played from the point of view of people we haven’t met, don’t know and don’t care about. So this feels simultaneously low-stakes and confusing. But, anyway – Data blows the gaff on whatever this is, for as-yet unknown reasons, and reveals himself while beating up and revealing his comrades. Darn it, if only the Federation had some kind of magical technology that could “lock on” to him and instantly “transport” him out of there. Oh well. One for the boffins to keep working on, I expect.

Now we catch up with the gang, but the supposedly amusing hijinks of Picard’s diplomatic quickstepping feel like the plot is losing momentum, not gaining it, for all the script’s hurried enthusiasm to make this veteran crew feel like first-year cadets who are complete beginners at this kind of ambassadorial function. And now it turns out that the Enterprise is two days away from the plot (and the flagship of the fleet is not equipped to enter the region in any case, although the unspecified properties of the “Briar Patch” are never particularly relevant as it turns out).

Adding a bit of class is F Murray Abraham as Ru’afo, who also gets some nifty makeup effects, but who is bossing Admiral Dougherty around (Anthony Zerbe, familiar from the James Bond film Licence to Kill, and he weirdly gets the same death scene there as here) like he’s the Federation and Starfleet are his soldiers. Adding-the-backstory-on-the-hoof can make for propulsive storytelling, but it can also lead to bewilderment, as here. Who are these people? What are they doing? And why – other than the still-inexplicable involvement of Data – should I care?

Inside and out, the Enterprise has never looked better, with the bridge striking a nice balance between the beige comfort of the TV version and the shadowy gloom of Generations. But the whole set up is unnecessarily confusing, laboriously moving our people into place instead of having them there from the beginning, telling the story from odd viewpoints, rarely getting me terribly invested in what is happening, and Patrick Stewart hamming out HMS Pinafore doesn’t help matters much.

The next phase of the story kind of undoes a lot of what was set-up over the previous half-hour. The society which must not know of the existence of the Federation turns out to be post-Warp not pre-Warp after all. Data is put back in his box. The fact that it took the Enterprise two days to arrive was never relevant – it could have been an hour and things would have turned out just the same. And once the decoy village was built, there seems little purpose in continuing to wander around in secret, calling into question the continuing need for the “duck blind” at all. Rather than be present and see what happened to cause Data’s malfunction, we have to learn about it after the fact, when we already know the outcome. And what we discover is yet another lift from a TV episode, this time Homeward with its Holodeck simulation of familiar surroundings. (And it’s surprising to say the least to discover that the computer on this super-secret installation will obey voice commands from literally anyone. Still, I’d find Patrick Stewart’s commands hard to ignore too.)

When it finally comes to light, the MacGuffin turns out to be that the planet is an orbiting fountain of youth, thanks to some exotic “metaphasic radiation” – which like most radiation affects the cells in the bodies of adults differently than it affects the cells in the bodies of children (“Don’t ask me to explain it,” growls Admiral Badguy). Given that this is a series which gave us a 137-year-old McCoy in its pilot episode, it’s an odd thing to choose as the fulcrum of the rest of the plot. Anyway, rather than work with the inhabitants, and send scientists to study the radiation, the Federation in its wisdom has decided to partner with Galactic “thugs” the So’na and take control of the planet in total secrecy. This undermines Star Trek’s traditional sunny optimism for no very good reason, but now at least – nearly half-way through the film – we understand who the badguys are, what they’re trying to do, and what we need to do to stop them. This is all that remains of Michael Piller’s original pitch: Picard standing against the Federation to protect the 600 inhabitants of the village.

It all comes down to Picard’s captain’s yacht vs Salieri and the rest of his flat-faced gang. I’m just not sure I want the Federation to be the badguys in my Star Trek film – and if that is what I’m going to get, I’d like the stakes to be a bit higher than the fate of one small collection of twee adobe huts. The revelation that the So’na and the Ba’ku are the same species likewise is only of conceptual interest – it never hits with any emotional resonance, because we don’t know these people. They can tell us that they recognise each other, but I don’t feel anything. Similarly, a small collection of subplots listlessly orbit the main story without feeding into it in any meaningful way (Data and the moppet, Picard’s banal love story, Troi and Riker getting it on), and then they are all unceremoniously discarded for that whizz-bang ending. Only LeVar Burton’s little speech about sunsets has any real power.

Everything looks great, with very decent computer effects, dramatic camerawork and lighting from Frakes and cinematographer Matthew F Leonetti. Patrick Stewart and especially Brent Spiner are excellent (with the rest getting a little more screen time than is typical, but still no real input into the plot – unless Riker getting a shave counts as character development), but after the great success of First Contact, this is a major disappointment, and the silly jokes which plague the script don’t help, from Data’s assessment of Riker’s smooth jaw, to his use as a flotation device, to Worf’s irrelevant puberty, to the “toning” experienced by Crusher and Troi. Three stars reflects both the fact that this is a slick, well-produced product with strong performances and also how much I enjoy seeing the rest of the crew rally around the Captain, even if the justification is both weak and slightly sour. The most effective material in the whole film is probably the space battle in the Briar Patch. It’s in no way new, goodness knows we’ve seen space battles before, but it has an energy and a desperation which the rest of the film sorely lacks – especially, the ersatz Death Star ending with its laborious countdown and endless flitting between ships (and where the bright blue windows make it look as if the effects team forget to put the stars in). Using the Holoship trick against Ru’afo is cute too.

There are a handful of brief mentions of the Dominion, but this doesn’t feel at all as if the Federation is at war. Once again Worf is onboard the Enterprise for no adequately explained reason. He reports late to the bridge (presumably because he was never formally transferred to this ship and so was never rostered). The title was one of about a dozen which were considered. Why “Insurrection” was chosen is something of a mystery, as no insurrection (violent uprising against a ruling power) is ever depicted.

How long will it take the Enterprise to get everyone home without their warp core, bearing in mind it took them two days to get there at presumably maximum warp?

Oscars 2021: Mank

Posted on March 21st, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

In 1925, Herman J Mankiewicz, newly employed Hollywood screenwriter, sent a famous telegram to fellow New Yorker Ben Hecht. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

In David Fincher’s film Mank this notorious missive is paraphrased, relocated to 1930, the recipient switched to Herman’s brother Joe, its status is lowered to that of a tired old running gag and it is shorn of its punchline. That’s this film all over: flagrantly inaccurate, its inventions usually less interesting and more confusing than the truth it rejects, freely borrowing other people’s witty remarks, but heedless as to what made those quips funny in the first place. Elsewhere, Sam Goldwyn’s famous barb about sending messages by Western Union is put in the mouth of Louis B Mayer and Mankiewicz himself adopts John Houseman’s savagely funny nickname for Orson Welles: Maestro The Dog-Faced Boy.

Mank, now trailing ten Oscar nominations in its wake, is (sort-of) the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. That’s a big problem right there. The actual process of writing, the hard graft of trying to construct a screenplay, the endless finessing of dialogue and action lines, the painstaking editing and re-editing, is rarely dramatic, and almost never cinematic. But whereas there are fascinating stories to be told about how Welles got the contract of a lifetime at RKO, why he wanted to collaborate with Mank and how they settled on Hearst as a suitable subject – not to mention the nearly catastrophic fallout when the film was completed – none of this is of interest to Fincher who starts the action with a 90 day countdown to Mank finishing the first draft and ends the movie before Welles starts shooting his.

That it’s Mank doing the writing means that Fincher (and his late dad Jack who wrote the script – given an uncredited polish by Eric Roth, irony fans) has swallowed the Pauline Kael Kool-Aid and is repeating the easily-debunked lie that Mank deserved sole credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. Like Kael, Fincher’s camera just doesn’t look at it any of the writing of Kane done by Welles and thus concludes that he did none. In interviews, Fincher has claimed that he had no interest in attributing credit. But he was interested in the story of a man who agreed not to accept credit and then changed his mind. The sum total screentime which this debate occupies is less than two minutes. A great deal of the rest of it is rather ho-hum life-in-1930s-Hollywood flashback, which eventually and laboriously drags itself towards a slightly hysterical and mildly revisionist take on radical novelist Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California in 1934, which is then presented as Mankiewicz’s motivation for writing a satire about Hearst.

The facts are that Sinclair’s bid was harmed by “fake news” propaganda films released by MGM, and by poisonous columns in Hearst papers – although other papers were even more violently anti-Sinclair. Mank gilds this slim story with Herman being the only Sinclair supporter amid hundreds of loyal Republican MGM staffers, his personal crusade via his friendship with Marion Davies to prevent the films from being released, and the suicide of the writer-turned-editor-turned-director who was somehow goaded into creating these monstrosities. In real life, the editor of the films (who was previously employed by MGM as… checks notes… an editor) was perfectly happy with his work and made more of the same.

Mankiewicz had no involvement with Upton Sinclair whatsoever, and would no doubt have been drawn to the legend of Hearst even if he hadn’t first been a frequent guest at San Simeon and then been humiliatingly uninvited. So this is somewhat of a made-up answer in search of a suitable question. And the movie shifts gears abruptly when Mank’s aloof cynicism suddenly turns into messianic zeal as he briefly battles to prevent the forces of darkness from winning. It’s true that by this point in the film I was getting very fed up of people walking in and out of rooms, making mordant wisecracks at each other, always in the same monotonous rhythms, smothered by the ever-present score, and I dearly longed for there to be something at stake, for someone to strive for something, for me to be hoping for one outcome or dreading another. But its hard to escape the conclusion that Gary Oldman’s Mank adopts this role of desperate defender of all that is good and holy because he’s the protagonist of the movie since this behaviour is totally at odds with everything else we know about him. And this is the problem with making shit up to try and turn your slice-of-true-life into a screenplay. You need to make sure the pieces fit together and that what you’ve added to reality coheres with what was there before. Better to make up almost everything (as in Argo) – or just give up and make a documentary – if the fiction fails to mesh with the fact to this extent.

Take Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies. Probably the best scene in the entire film is their conversation in the garden of San Simeon. The score dies down, people stop quipping over each other and we just get to explore who these people are, and what they mean to each other. It has little to do with Welles or Kane or Sinclair or anything else but it does explore deeper themes of fame, wealth, notoriety and the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world.

However, this largely-invented relationship now has to do battle with what most viewers already know. The person who came off worst from Citizen Kane was probably that same Marion Davies. Welles in several interviews is rather shamefaced about her, describing their depiction of Kane’s second wife as a “dirty trick” which unfairly tarnished the reputation of a basically blameless and clearly talented young woman. Obviously, at the time, the enterprising young screenwriters didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

But, watching Mank, you are forced to conclude that Herman J Mankiewicz establishes a deep friendship and trust with Davies. Then, given total autonomy to write whatever screenplay he wishes, he chooses to write a version of Hearst and a version of Davies which wildly defames them both, and then when the damage this will do to Davies is pointed out to him – on two separate occasions – despite no pressure whatsoever in any other direction, he calmly leaves the screenplay exactly as it is without his conscience bothering him for a moment. And remember – the lesson he has supposedly learned from the Sinclair debacle is: movies can alter how people think. At this point, it’s impossible to try and understand who Herman Mankiewicz is. He’s reduced to a series of checkboxes and catchphrases, assembled at random.

There are other problems besides. While taking almost no time at all to school younger viewers as to who Welles is, what Citizen Kane is and why it matters, the script makes sure we know who individual characters are by having people greet them by name and most notable feature: “Thalberg! The boy genius!” “Herman Mankiewicz? New York playwright and drama critic?” Neither Mankiewicz nor Welles would ever have stood for that. Elsewhere, LB Mayer is “poppa” and WR Hearst is “pops” just in case you were having trouble keeping all these old white wisecracking men straight. About halfway through the film, everybody starts calling Hearst “Willy” to avoid confusion. And the Frankenstein plotting continues right to the end, where Mayer’s offer to buy the Kane negative off RKO for a little more than the film cost to make is bizarrely made before the script is even finished. And, a colossal bet that Mankiewicz makes on the outcome of the election is given huge weight and then never referred to again.

Performances are largely fine. Oldman is several decades too old for Mankiewicz, but maybe that fits given that Herman J essentially drank himself to death over many years. Sam Troughton makes a suitably fussy and pedantic John Houseman, Amanda Seyfried is very winning as Davies and Tom Burke catches something of Welles’ voice, although little of his wry self-reflection and megawatt charisma, while Charles Dance chews the scenery with predictable relish as Hearst.

And it all looks magnificent of course. One can only wonder if Fincher considered shooting it in 4:3 ala Zach Synder, but he fills the widescreen frame with period detail, including reel change marks, fake splices and type-written captions which, after they’ve appeared, scroll jerkily down the screen – you know, the way that paper in a typewriter doesn’t. It’s cute at first, but wearying after a while, like a precious child constantly demanding your attention.

There is a fascinating story here, and there are glimpses of what might have been. But the brilliance of the Kane script is (in part) that it takes a vastly complicated narrative, boils it down to only the most interesting and dramatic sequences and then erects a framing device which not only gives the whole enterprise a second layer of meaning, but avoids the need for any clumsy exposition to be given in dialogue. For a film which keeps making silly visual puns with the 1941 masterpiece, it’s amazing to look at the script and see that almost the exact opposite has been done in every single case. A fairly simple story has been made to seem more complicated than it was, the main timeline zeroes in on the least dramatic sequence and the only framing device seemingly required is a few terse captions.

Which would all be fine – or at least tolerable – if the execution weren’t so grindingly tedious. The worst offenders are the lengthy scenes at the Hearst mansion where everybody rattles out historical exposition alternating with ersatz versions of famous bon mots, carefully timed so as to delicately overlap. But the cadence is relentless, monotonous, deadening. There are no actual people in this room. It’s like a ride at Disneyland – we glide smoothly past animatronic versions of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg et al, reciting their familiar catchphrases. And at the end, I feel I know Mankiewicz less well than before. A big disappointment from such a talented team.

Mary Poppins Redux

Posted on January 2nd, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns

I was really looking forward to Mary Poppins Returns.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgic affection for the original 1964 film – even more so after watching Saving Mr Banks, far better than the pitch would suggest (it’s basically a massive studio making a film about how awesome another one of its films is!). You can’t argue with the pedigree of the talent involved, on both sides of the camera. And the early clips looked great.

What we got was… okay, I guess.

It probably shouldn’t go without saying, but it very often does, that the film looks fantastic. Robert Stevenson’s original is strikingly effortless in its creation of magical effects, with no computer generated imagery available (although Disney did have better blue-screen than anyone else, thanks to Petro Vlahos’s sodium vapor process which other technicians at rival studios had been unable to replicate). Rob Marshall’s follow-up keeps the same easy and unfussy integration of magical elements into a believable, but storybook world and Dion Beebe’s photography smartly keeps a ceiling on the brightness until the world explodes into colour and light towards the end. And if the new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman aren’t quite in the league of those by the Sherman Brothers, they’re tuneful enough and they get the job done.

But from fairly early on, a lot of elements don’t seem quite right.

We are (re)introduced to the Banks children, now grown up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Wishaw’s Michael is living in his childhood home on Cherrytree Lane and now has three children of his own, and all four are mourning the death of their mother. Aunt Jane (Mortimer) is staying with them and in a needlessly chaotic scene we gather that the plumbing needs seeing to, the groceries need to be got, the house is being repossessed and the kids, especially Annabel are really running the show. They’re certainly more practical help than housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).

Lo, while flying Michael’s old kite, Mary Poppins appears and with a bit of help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), they descend into a cartoon world inside a china bowl, pay a call on Poppins’ cousin Topsy (a delightful Meryl Streep) and save the house from the clutches of the bank.

In outline, I suppose, this all sounds fine. But, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film treats the original less like a springboard from which to find new ideas, but rather as a template to be followed closely. So just like in 1964, we get a magical tidying up, followed by a journey to a cartoon world, followed by adventures with an eccentric friend of Poppins’ up on the ceiling, then a trip to the bank which goes wrong, rescue by Bert/Jack and his gang of workers, then a resolution at the bank, followed by aerial delights with the whole family in the park while Poppins slips away.

But while the structure is followed rigidly, it seems as if writers Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca are working from a half-remembered version of the original, in which Dick van Dyke plays a chimney sweep (he has a different job in each section of the film), in which Mary Poppins repeatedly transports the children to magical lands (this only happens once) and in which fantastic sequences end with the children waking up as if from a dream (this never happens). In fact, as the cameos from familiar faces start piling up, this begins to feel less like From Russia With Love and more like Operation Kid Brother.

But the original film is also smart and subtle enough to realise that while the source books feel very episodic, movie audiences of all ages need a bit more connecting tissue. So, every episode contributes in some way to the rehabilitation of George Banks. Motifs like “a spoonful of sugar” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are all part of his journey back to his family and the least well-remembered sequence (Ed Wynn on the ceiling) is the cornerstone of this process.

Here, nothing in the underwater “Can You Imagine That” sequence is ever referred to again, and it’s questionable whether we needed either “Turning Turtle” or “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” either. And if it sounds like I’m criticising the film when it copies the original and criticising it again when it doesn’t – well, I suppose I am, but that’s the problem that sequels are often faced with, especially sequels to beloved films which are a very long time in coming. And it’s not particularly a point in the new film’s favour that a lot of the new sequences are drawn from PL Travers’ writing either. Who the hell actually read the books? (Actually I read the first four avidly as a child, but that’s not the point.)

No, here’s the real problem with this film. What’s it actually about? As I’ve said, it was the Sherman Brothers and producer Don Da Gradi’s inspiration that the golden thread uniting all of the elements of their story was that Mary Poppins had arrived not to straighten out unruly kids, but to save their father from himself. What is Mary Poppins’ mission this time round?

Well, at first it seems as if the natural order of things has been reversed. The kids are having to parent their father (Annabel at least). Is this the problem that supernanny is here to solve? Well, Georgie, the youngest, doesn’t suffer this affliction and when she’s done summoning a plumber (who never arrives) and setting off for groceries (which she never buys), Annabel just basically becomes a child again and so does her twin brother John.

Wishaw seems a bit absent-minded, but it’s not clear whether this is brought on by grief or whether it’s a character flaw. Either way, it wouldn’t work for Mary Poppins to make him more organised and rigid, and she clearly isn’t going to bring his wife back from the dead (can you imagine!?), so he isn’t the problem either. And Emily Mortimer’s Jane seems pretty self-reliant and together throughout. The film hints that she might need a man to be whole, but never quite sets off down that rather parochial path.

One interesting thread which is presented is that as they recollect their time with Mary Poppins, the adult Michael and Jane have rewritten their memories, and now believe that their magical adventures were nothing but an overactive imagination. They conclude this in the foreground, as Emily Blunt sails up the bannisters behind them, in what is possible the best shot in the entire film. But they both feel the same way, which is dramatically inert, and they don’t really alter this point of view over the course of the story. At the climax, when the whole family is soaring through the sky, buoyed aloft by Angela Lansbury’s balloons, Lansbury lumpenly spells it out for us – the adults won’t remember this the next day. No change. No growth. No transformation. No point.

In other words, Mary Poppins isn’t doing anyone any good by being there. She’s a fun source of magical adventures, but that isn’t a story. Disney realised that in 1964. Why has no-one clocked it this time round?

Absent a needed emotional transformation of a family member, what does drive the plot of the new film? An achingly tedious find-the-McGuffin routine, over-familiar from countless other films before it, allied with an even more over-familiar race-against-time device. This requires the presence of something which the first film had no need of: a bad actor; a villainous character who is actively and purposefully seeking to cause the Banks family harm for his own personal gain. It was during the otherwise lovely Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, with its wonderfully nostalgic hand-drawn animation that I began to feel as if something was badly wrong. Why are the Banks children in mortal danger? Why is a bad guy rubbing his hands with glee? Why does the sequence not end properly? What the hell is going on?

And Colin Firth is required to jump through any number of nonsensical plot hoops to make all this work. He gives Wishaw a job, even though he wants him to default on the loan. He voluntarily stays at the bank till midnight, even though he could go home at 5:00pm and guarantee that his scheme succeeds. He allows himself to be suckered in by the incredibly lame device of Miranda and co turning back the hands of Big Ben so that the deadline can be extended (a literal race-against-time, yawn) and then every single action anyone has taken in the last half hour is rendered moot by the Deus Ex Van Dyke at the end. Without Indy, the Nazis would probably still have found the Ark eventually, but at least because he was there, it ends up safe in the hands of the American government, who have the wisdom not to try and weaponise it. Without Mary Poppins’s return… I don’t know. Everything is exactly the same, I guess. Because she’s there to give the kids adventures, but the plot revolves around a bank loan. The pieces don’t mesh, and I don’t feel anything when I watch it.

The nearest I got to being moved was when the kids sing The Place Where Lost Things Go to their dad, who realises that they’ve been parenting him. Yes. Briefly. Before Mary Poppins showed up. But this epiphany doesn’t actually change Wishaw’s behaviour in any way, so – again – what’s the point of it? And it doesn’t help that this is the latest in a too-long line of supposedly insightful bon mots which attempt to recapture the simple truth of “A spoonful of sugar” but none of them quite make the grade. “Different point of view.” “If it makes no sense it can’t be true.” “A cover is not the book.” And most vacantly of all “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” Eh?

Even the shot of Firth’s balloon sinking to the ground at the end, leaving him humiliated and earthbound just seems wrong to me. Mary Poppins is about taking crusty adults who have forgotten the elation of being childlike and giving them that joy back again. It’s not about sorting adults into winners and losers and then laughing cruelly at the losers. Ugh.

One of many reasons why the 1964 film works so well is that its makers were in no way in awe of the books. They disregarded PL Travers every chance they got, in order to put their vision of Mary Poppins on screen. As Saving Mr Banks tells us, they then had to defend and fight for every single one of those changes, which is perhaps why the final film feels so perfectly balanced.

The new film has been made by people whose reverence for the original seems overwhelming, and yet at the same time, who didn’t really understand it at all. It’s a cargo-cult version of the original, with a smashing cast, decent songs, a good sense of fun and some eye-popping visuals. But it has no engine and that’s why it can’t ever actually take off and fly.

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.


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 | 2 Comments »

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


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.



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


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).


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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 way, 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.