Archive for January, 2011

Black Swan

Posted on January 31st, 2011 in At the cinema | No Comments »

d. Darren Aronofsky; w. Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin (story Heinz)
Natalie Portman, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis

NB: This review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know, don’t read.

This is the first Darren Aronofsky film I’ve seen, but I’m aware of his reputation as an uncompromising director of sometimes-baffling dramas and this movie, very well received by British and American critics, certainly lives up to that reputation. Natalie Portman stars – by which I mean that she’s hardly ever off the screen – as Nina, a dedicated ballerina given the chance to dance the lead in Swan Lake. She has the technique and the grace to play the vulnerable white swan, but her director (Vincent Cassel) doubts that she has the dark power required for the duel-role of the black swan.

Both in casting and on the page, it’s Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy who is the weak link here. His part of the story is overfamiliar – the prickish cocksman of a director who dominates a vulnerable young would-be star, alternately encouraging her and confounding her until she either cracks or delivers the performance of a lifetime. Cassell makes little headway with this limited part, which also requires him to dole out thudding exposition, but just when one might expect his villainy to ramp up, he withdraws and other candidates come to the fore as potential antagonists.

One is Mila Kunis, in a lively turn as a looser, less dedicated but funkier rival who ends up being cast as Portman’s understudy. The other is a Barbara Hershey, channelling Bette Davis as Portman’s mother, whose own ballet career failed to live up to expectations and who alternates pride, concern and envy in a very well-observed fashion. And let’s also raise a glass to Winona Ryder as the retiring ballet star, pleasingly bitter and lush in what is essentially a cameo role.

However, the real antagonist here is none of the above. Instead the role is fulfilled by Portman’s own fragile psyche, brought vividly to life by a hugely energised combination of jump-cutting, fractured soundscape and brilliantly-realised CGI. It’s this playing with reality which elevates the movie above its over-familiar backstage status-battle storyline. Although there are some quirky hints early on, from the middle of the movie, neither the viewer nor the protagonist can trust the reality of anything they see, and Aronofsky expertly builds the tension and confusion, almost to the end. From an objective standpoint, the stakes here are relatively low (will some girl dance quite well or very well?), but the entire film is designed so that we only never get that objectivity and see the world from Portman’s own increasingly-unreliable point-of-view.

At the centre of this increasingly demented maelstrom, then, is Portman herself. Aronofsky’s camera rarely leaves her – when it isn’t fetishizing her feet and her shoe-preparation routine, it’s crawling over her skin as she wounds herself, or as feathers apparently sprout from her flesh. When it isn’t hovering in front of her, it’s creeping behind her, or watching her reflection in one of the countless mirrors or other reflective surfaces which litter the film, and which make for some of its creepiest effects sequences. On the rare occasions when she isn’t filling the frame, we are generally looking out through her eyes – and sometimes both at the same time. Portman’s gaunt yet luminous beauty shines through the grainy photography, and her slightly Spock-like eyebrows mean she can transform effortlessly into Satanic counterpart without the viewer being entirely aware of what has changed.

In its bravura penultimate sequence, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the constant rug-pulling and demented energy becomes a little offputting and the whole thing threatens to tip into absurdity. And the final supposed revelation that to give such a “perfect” performance, Portman’s character has had to re-enact the plot of Swan Lake, right down to that self-destructive ending, is a little too pat, for what is otherwise such a breezily off-kilter fillm. But almost all of what goes before is fresh, disturbing, engaging and surprising.

Far too offputting for the Academy to do much more than nominate it, Aronofsky’s film is a complex mix of pulp melodrama, high art and character study. If you’ve been waiting all year for a nightmare psycho-horror fantasy film en pointe, then your wait is over, but this effort is very good rather than perfection.

Oscars 2011

Posted on January 30th, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

It’s Oscar time again, which means that I’ve been moreorless keeping up this blog for a whole year. Well done to me.

It also means that I intend to duplicate my 2010 efforts and see all ten (why ten!?) Best Picture nominees before the ceremony on 27 February (and I’m away next week). In fact, I never did get around to seeing the very dreary-looking Sandra Bullock, Friday Night Lights-inspired The Blind Side (it’s still on my hard drive, courtesy of iTunes). However, it’s not so bad. I’ve already seen four out of ten in the ordinary course of things, so I’ll put my capsule reviews of those four up here, and a quick rundown of what I consider to be the favourites in the various categories.

First of all, here are the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen.

The King’s Speech
Big favourite this year, not just for Best Picture, but Best Actor and Best Director too. The King’s Speech is the most-nominated film this year, which generally bodes well and it’s easy to see why – it has Oscar glory stamped all over it. Apart possibly from Toy Story 3, it’s the most purely entertaining film on the list, has done well at the box office (although all the naughty swearing means an R rating which has hurt it a little in the States) and manages the ideal Oscar trick of being genuinely about something (duty, family, friendship, articulacy, communication, status) whilst at the same time, absolutely not daring to challenge its audience’s preconceptions in any way. Cosy enough to turn nobody away, yet meaty enough not to feel insubstantial, and blessed with two exceptional performances from Firth and Rush, this may not go down in history as a cast-iron classic, but it’s certainly in the right place at the right time (stealing momentum away from The Social Network).

Another film which tries to have its cake and eat it too, Inception, is a remarkable achievement from a remarkable director, and was a hugely fun night out when I went to see it on a nice big screen, but it doesn’t have a prayer in the Best Picture stakes. Whereas The King’s Speech is an entertaining drama which asks its audience to ponder weighty themes without asking any really awkward questions, Inception is a cerebral thriller, playing with levels of reality with huge daring and imagination, but with a popcorn heart. This is Nolan’s achievement – designing an intellectual framework within which he can pull off heart-stopping action sequences and eye-bending images, and then creating an emotional McGuffin to tie it all together. I loved it, despite Leonardo di Caprio’s characteristically bland central performance, despite Ellen Page’s dual role as naïf and sage, and despite the occasional plot hole. But its dry intellectual heft is no match for The King’s Speech double-whammy of historical weight and emotional drama. Worthy beats fun every time for Oscar, and so Chris Nolan will go home empty-handed, apart possibly from some technical awards.

The Social Network
Another film I thoroughly enjoyed, right up until the last ten minutes which attempted to tie a too-neat bow around what had been a compelling narrative thus far. Aaron Sorkin’s masterful and archly witty screenplay gracefully solves the problem of why we should care about what the geeks who invented Facebook ate for lunch between coding by the elegant device of the double-litigation flashback structure. As well as the wholly-unrealistic (but hugely satisfying)– whipcrack dialogue, the film showcases a pair of outstanding performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Spiderman-to-be Andrew Garfield and an invisible special effect – as they generally should be – to turn one actor into a pair of identical twins. What will hurt its chances at the Oscars are that it peaked too late, that David Fincher’s chilly direction will have put some people off what’s potentially a dry-seeming screenplay in the first place – and that Fincher himself was extravagantly praised for the lumpen Benjamin Button at the 2009 Oscars.

Toy Story 3
Will clearly win the Best Animated Feature award, but hasn’t a chance in hell of winning Best Picture, despite the fact that it apparently has a lot of the same things going for it as The King’s Speech – excellent box office, high quality entertainment, important themes which give it weight without dragging it down, technical standards dazzlingly high – but let’s be clear, no animated sequel ever has or ever will win Best Picture. Which is a shame, as it’s an exceptional piece of work even by Pixar’s high standards. Up was lovely, but the structure was a little clunky (and it was criticised in some quarters for double mumbo-jumbo), WALL-E was magnificent until they got on board the ship, after which I found the satire a little heavy-handed, Ratatouille had marvellous moments but lost energy in the middle third. Toy Story 3 reminds us where it all started for Pixar and also how far we’ve come. Resisting the urge to snazz-up Woody and Buzz, they’re just the same simple, yet appealing figures they were in 1995, the filmmakers flex their muscles with much more convincing humans and stunning simulation work of various kinds. The supporting cast is trimmed down where necessary (no Bo Peep, RC, Wheezy, Etch for example) and expanded on brilliantly (Michael Keaton as Ken, Timothy Dalton as Mr Pricklepants and Ned Beatty as Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear are wonderful additions). The tension is almost unbearable during the incinerator scene, which is brilliantly resolved, and when Andy – still voiced by John Morris – plays with Woody and Buzz one last time, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

So four down, six to go. And they are Black Swan (The Red Shoes meets Shutter Island), The Fighter (Rocky with Mark Wahlberg), The Kids are All Right (lesbians are mainstream now, cool), 127 Hours (I have to watch while you do what!?), True Grit (we’re not remaking the John Wayne film, we’re just adapting the same novel) and Winter’s Bone (which completely passed me by until it suddenly started popping up on American critics best of 2010 lists).

I’ll put reviews up here as I see the films, and I’ll attempt a little bit of crowd-sourcing to predict the results in the major categories. In the meantime, here are some gut reactions to the high profile nominations.

Best Picture – The King’s Speech pretty much has this sewn up I think, which means good news for Tom Hooper, since it’s rare for the director of the Best Picture to be overlooked.

Best Actor – will likely go to Colin Firth, who following his nomination last year for A Single Man, has demonstrated his Oscar-friendliness. But this is a strong category and it’s hard to right-off Javier Bardem, or – Oscar host! – James Franco.

Best Actress – is even harder to call, with all five women having a reasonable claim. My guess is that Natalie Portman has been made to suffer enough and hasn’t been smiled on yet by the Academy. The others are either too indie-obscure or too familiar with Oscar already, but any of them could do it, really.

Best Supporting Actor – is probably between Christian Bale, overlooked for The Dark Knight last year, and Geoffrey Rush, who may be swept along with The King’s Speech’s overall good fortune.

Best Supporting Actress – I have a strong hunch will go to Hailee Steinfeld who played the 14-year-old Mattie Ross in True Grit, at the remarkable age of, wow, 14. Best Supporting slots are good ways to reward newcomers, and otherwise overlooked films. Since I don’t believe True Grit will do well (a violent remake, which outweighs any nostalgia for westerns), this will be a place to recognise it. Steinfled could well follow in the footsteps of ten-year-old Tatum O’Neil and 11-year-old Anna Paquin.

The writing categories throw up a couple of oddities. The script for Toy Story 3, in which every twist and turn of the story is an original invention, is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, since some of the characters were created for a prior movie. On the other hand, the script for The King’s Speech, which documents actual historical events, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, since it does not acknowledge any particular prior work. This aside, The King’s Speech will probably take this category too, while in the Adapted camp, it’s a straight fight between 127 Hours and The Social Network, both of which turned uncinematic true events into gripping narrative. Winter’s Bone is probably in with a slim chance too.

That will do for now. In short, The King’s Speech will do well, True Grit won’t do as well as its ten nominations suggest. The Social Network, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone all have possibilities. Inception will be almost entirely overlooked.

Given my track-record with this kind of prediction, that should be enough for you to put an enormous bet down on Inception right now, but we’ll see in a few weeks’ time.

Why I bought an iPad – and you shouldn’t

Posted on January 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So I bought an iPad. I seem to be going through the following three phases with new technologies, to the irritation of my friends who ask me for advice about these things.

Phase one: anticipation. “Have you heard about X? It looks really interesting.”
Phase two: dismissal. “I’m not planning on buying X, for the following reasons.”
Phase three: purchase. “I’ve just got myself an X.”

In the wake of, at the very least, Palm Pilots, the iPhone and Blu-ray, the Apple iPad followed the same rather predictable pattern. On its first release, I was fascinated by the unveiling of this “breakthrough”, “magical” device. The leverage which Apple was able to achieve by releasing a tablet computer which on launch day was able to run hundreds of thousands of apps specifically designed for the touch interface I thought was staggering. But as clever as the idea was, as slick as the implementation was, and as desirable an object as it was, I really couldn’t think of where it could fit in to my existing lifestyle.

I’m a slave to my iPhone 4. It contains my calendar (shared via Google with my work colleagues and across several computers), it’s the only camera I’ve used in years, I check my email on it with neurotic frequency, I read books and newspapers on it, I walk around London staring at the map, and travel on the tube listening to podcasts and audiobooks on it, I’ve got three stars on every level on Angry Birds and I’ve achieved all the achievements on Plants vs Zombies. It also make phone calls. Given that I’ve already shelled out for this device, which slips into my jacket pocket and which I always have on me, why would I want an iPad?

Well, I’ve also watched a number of movies and TV shows on my iPhone, typically on long train journeys. With the iPhone 4’s super-duper high-resolution “retina” screen, this isn’t too bad at all. But it’s not exactly ideal, even if you find a comfortable place to sit and a convenient way of propping the phone up. Even while promising my friends I wouldn’t be buying an iPad, I mentioned that if I was habitually making long plane or train journeys, I might reconsider. Well, I’m flying to Brisbane at the beginning of February, and then to Moscow almost as soon as I get back. I recently took the train to Birmingham and back and Stockport and back on consecutive days, and I may have to revisit both locations – Birmingham maybe quite frequently. What clinched it was seeing a 64Gb 3G model going on eBay for the about price of the regular wi-fi only model (not quite sure how this was achieved, but I didn’t get a box of used pinball machine parts for my money, so I assume it was all perfectly legal). Okay, I thought, I’ll get it now, load it up with games, movies and TV shows for these long journeys and if I get back from Moscow and find it’s gathering dust in a drawer, I can sell it and I should get back at least as much as I paid for it.

Why am I even thinking about selling my new toy? Because only an idiot would buy a new iPad in January. The original iPad was announced on 27 January 2010 and was available for sale (in the US) on 3 April. At their recent quarterly earnings call, Apple confirmed what we all knew already – that an iPad 2 of some kind is in the works. With a regular pattern now established of iPhones announced in June and iPods announced in September, Apple is sticking to an annual product cycle. So the new iPad will likely be announced in a matter of weeks, if not days, and will be available in a couple of months. If you’re considering buying an iPad – wait!

What might such an iPad 2 bring with it, to tempt me away from my new toy? I imagine there’ll be a be at least two out of the following four: a speed bump, a slimmer design, a longer battery life and an increased capacity at the top end. None of these is much of a dealbreaker for me. It’s fast enough and slim enough, the battery life is stunning and 64Gb is spacious compared to my 32Gb iPhone 4 (and I’ve kept all the audio on the iPhone and put all the video on my iPad which effectively balances the load).

A front-facing camera seems likely, as Apple continues to push FaceTime, although I regard a rear-facing camera as less likely and certainly less useful. Who the hell is going to try and take holiday snaps with an iPad, or use it as a barcode scanner? Fucksake. The Internet is also all a-flurry with reports of an iPad case which seems to include extras slot for an SD card, or a USB device or an extra dock connector. I don’t really care about any of these.

I’m chiefly using my iPad to consume video – on trains or in bed – and so I care most about how this kind of content looks and sounds. Let’s take sound first. The iPhone has two identical-looking grilles at the bottom edge. To the confusion of some users, one is a mic and one is a speaker. Try covering one with your thumb while playing music to see which is which. The iPad has a similarly-positioned speaker. Holding the device with the home button at the bottom, the single speaker is on the bottom edge, towards the right. This is fine if watching video in portrait mode (which almost nobody does), but in the more usual landscape orientation, with the button at the left (which is how my Jack Spade case prefers things) all the sound comes out from the left. I’d dearly love stereo speakers, one on each side. Of course, if I were watching video in portrait mode, I’d want the speakers to be in the long sides instead of the short sides, so we’d actually need four speakers, triggered by the accelerometer. As far as I know, no such innovation is planned. Bah!

Now let’s talk about the screen. What made the iPhone 4 a must-purchase for me, more than anything else, was the astonishing screen. The original iPhone, and the first two revisions had a screen resolution of 320 x 480. Given the size of the screen, this works out as around 163ppi (pixels-per-inch) which was relatively high for 2007. The iPad has a resolution of 1024 x 768 (so it’s a little squarer than the iPhone screen) with a pixel-density of 132ppi. Given that one typically holds a larger screen further away, the iPad screen tends to look as good if not better than the iPhone screen, and obviously feels more spacious, having more physical room and more pixels.

“Native” iPad apps obviously tend to take up the whole screen, but apps originally designed for the iPhone sit in an iPhone-sized oblong in the middle of the screen, unless or until you tap a little 2x button in the corner of the screen, whereupon the iPad doubles all the pixels, so you get a 960 x 640 oblong taking up most of the 1024 x 768 space available, but all looking rather blocky. The iPhone 4, released after the iPad blows all of this out of the water. It already runs at double the resolution of previous incarnations, with older apps looking blocky (but no worse than on the old models) and newer apps written to take advantage of the whole 960 x 640 space, with its eye-watering 326ppi.

Amazingly, even after the recent software update, bringing to the iPad iOS 4 features such as multitasking, unified inbox, folders and so on, full-resolution iPhone 4 apps still run at the old resolution on the iPad, which is a horrible and pointless compromise. I can only hope that this will be corrected before iOS 5 comes out, presumably in June or July. The eye-popping screen of the iPhone 4, and the convenience for developers of a screen resolution exactly double (or half) that of another model has led many pundits to the conclusion that the iPad 2 will also come with an upgraded display – 2048 x 1536 which would work out to 260ppi.

But it’s not pixel-density which is going to be the issue here. 2048 x 1536 is over three million pixels, which is a staggering amount. All MacBooks sport 1280 x 800 pixels (about a million pixels). The 21.5” iMac has a 1920 x 1080 screen (about two million pixels). Only the very top-end 27” iMac has more pixels, and then only just – 2560 x 1440 which is about three and a half million pixels. Those who imagine that a 2048 x 1536 screen will be found on the iPad 2 are imagining that – without sacrificing battery life, speed and all-important responsiveness – about the same number of pixels found on the 27” screen of a top-end $1700 desktop will be found on the 10” screen of a $500 tablet. Some very significant breakthroughs in processor speed and efficiency will be required to bring this to pass.

And if it did – what would we use it for? All of Apple’s “HD” content on iTunes is 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels. This doesn’t quite fit onto the iPad, but video content scaled down generally looks okay. On the proposed iPad megascreen, 720p content floats around the middle or is stretched out to fit – and scaling up makes content look blocky. True HD is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 pixels. Today, that only really means Blu-ray. Remember, no iTunes content is currently available at this resolution – the file sizes would be much bigger for only a small visible increase in picture quality. And yet even images at this size would have to be scaled up, or float around in the middle of the 2048 x 1536 screen.

Given all the foregoing, I don’t think a 2048 x 1536 iPad is likely. I can’t rule it out, of course. No-one expected a 326ppi resolution from the iPhone 4, and Apple is certainly prepared to push the envelope. If they do it, I’ll probably upgrade. If not, I’ll probably stay put or even sell my existing model. So far, my assumptions have been pretty much correct. For watching video, it’s great (and if, like me, you have a big networked hard-drive with lots of video content on it, then the Air Video app is a must). I do use it and prefer it to the iPhone to read Kindle books, or The Times newspaper (there’s no Guardian iPad app yet), or flip through RSS feeds (I like Reeder). Given the choice, I’ll use the iPad to check my email or look at my calendar. But when, as today, I go for a meeting without it, I’m perfectly happy to do all those things on my iPhone.

Meet me back here when the iPad 2 is announced…

So… what did I think about A Christmas Carol?

Posted on January 3rd, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Even by my standards, this review is heartily on the late side, so I will be brief. Basically, it’s marvellous. And it could so easily not have been. The last time Doctor Who took on Dickens’ venerable short novel, the results were disastrous for programme and leading man alike. Here, thanks in large part to a towering performance from Sir Michael Gambon, it works magnificently. In fact, this may have been the most completely successful Christmas special so far (read on).

The dilemma is a little contrived, but serves its purpose and is sketched in with admirable economy and finesse, including some cheeky visual nods to the recent Star Trek movie along the way. The key moment of “you didn’t hit the boy” is strong and simple and resonant, and the Doctor’s solution is a lovely Moffat-y mix of timebending paradoxes, jawdropping gags and just enough heartfelt emotion to paper over the cracks.

If you’ve ever wondered at the decorous ways in which leading ladies die gently and nobly of attractive diseases in movies-of-the-week (or even more highbrow fare such as Shadowlands), then you’ll be staggered at the way in which Katherine Jenkins faces imminent death with absolutely nothing in the way of debilitating symptoms beyond a very retro-looking countdown.

My only quibbles, disquiets or pauses are that Moffat Time Paradox stuff is threatening to become an over-used device – a sort of incorporeal sonic screwdriver. Next thing you know, they’ll be bribing the architect. Secondly, for the first time in ages, we were treated to some genuinely dodgy effects work during the shark-driven sleigh rides. It’s not even appropriately nostalgic, because it’s not fuzzy-edged CSO with parts of Matt Smith’s legs disappearing, it’s 1978 Superman The Movie-style visible matte lines, and actors happily lurching around, just not quite in tune with the changing angles of the background plate.

It’s also true that Amy and Rory don’t get much of a look-in, but to be honest that made sense. After the Doctor handling Sardick’s past, I had a horrible feeling that Amy would be handling the present at equal length followed by Rory somehow handling the future. In fact, the treatment of future was where all the timewimey stuff, the actual plot and the emotions of the story came together beautifully, and I’m sure Arthur Darvill will have more to do in the spring.

In short, what’s not to like? It’s complicated enough for the grown-ups, simple enough for the kids, it’s got a flying shark, the Singing Detective, an amazing acting debut from Katherine Jenkins, Matt Smith owns the part by now and it’s Doctor Who at Christmas. Five out of five. Easily.

Before I go, here’s a quick run-down of Christmas specials past. This is a short list since the only twentieth century episode which remotely counts is the bizarre The Feast of Steven also known as part 7 of the twelve part Hartnell leviathan The Daleks’ Masterplan. This demented entry, broadcast on Christmas Day 1965 features appearances from the Keystone Cops and Z Cars and ends with Hartnell wishing the viewers at home a happy Christmas. It no longer exists in the BBC archives.

However, following its triumphant return in 2005, a Christmas special was rapidly commissioned and almost instantly became a festive fixture.

The Christmas Invasion set the template while simultaneously introducing us to the definitive Davies Doctor. Absurdly Christmassey, or so it seemed at the time, it emphasised the audience’s existing relationship with Rose, Jackie and Mickey, deliberately keeping the new Doctor in the background until ready to give him a big entrance. And although David Tennant makes a huge impact in the last 15 minutes, the story is a bit ho-hum and the supposedly climactic sword fight is problematic firstly as a very physical bit of problem-solving for such an intellectual hero and secondly for some profoundly dodgy process work. The Doctor’s severed hand turns out to be the Christmas gift that just keeps giving however and the line “Don’t you think she looks tired” is just great – in fact the whole Harriet Jones goes all Brigadier on the Sycorax’s ass is a welcome shot of vinegar among all the sickly yuletide.

The Runaway Bride is absolutely amazing for the first twenty minutes or so (and I’m firmly in the pro-Donna camp). The motorway chase is one of the finest, most sustained pieces of dramatic, comedic and kinetic material that the series has ever offered. Through the middle, the puzzle of Donna’s boyfriend strains my interest and the revelation of the Racnoss is rather poor, thanks to the inexplicable decision to place poor Sarah Parish in a basically immobile spider suit and spray-paint her red.

Voyage of the Damned is the first of what became a cycle of temporary companion specials. Kylie is fine, but the concept of Doctor Who disaster movie feels wrong, and the whole is overblown and lacks focus.

The Next Doctor is two stories in one, neither wholly successful. The David Morrissey strand is nothing more than a slightly cynical headline-grabber from Davies. Next Doctor, my nutsack. This red herring is disposed of as quickly as is seemly, and we move on to Cyberman In The Snow which adds very little to the corpus. As with most of the David Tennant stories, it’s fun while it’s on, but it’s very short of the greatest that the series has to offer.

The Waters of Mars might have pipped A Christmas Carol if it had gone out at Christmas as originally-planned. It’s pretty-much perfect, but instead we got The End of Time Part One which if anything is even less coherent than the incredibly overblown second part.

As usual, the new series trailer had me salivating, so I’ll see you back here in the spring.