Archive for November, 2013

Gravity – no spoilers

Posted on November 15th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | 3 Comments »


This is a quick spoiler-free review of Gravity which I saw yesterday at the IMAX. A more thorough review, full of spoiler-y goodness may follow later. Or not.

So, firstly – believe the hype. Everything you’ve heard about these being the best space sequences, and especially the best weightless sequences ever shot – that’s all true. Almost every frame is stupefyingly convincing. IMAX 3D makes all the difference, I imagine this would lose a lot on Blu-Ray, or heaven forbid DVD.

And I’ve been pretty down on 3D in the past but here it’s used with remarkable taste and restraint. We got a trailer for The Hobbit before the movie and it had that awful cardboard cut-out look that so many stereoscopic movies have these days. In Gravity, apart from some flying debris, what you mainly get is depth – horrifying, unimaginable, inky, depth.

The storyline is lean to the point of austere. After a dizzying 12 minute sequence with no apparent cuts, all hell breaks lose when a cloud of debris ploughs in to astronauts repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Minutes later George Clooney’s grizzled and loquacious old space-salt and Sandra Bullock’s wet-behind-the-ears scientist are the only survivors with no working shuttle to get them back to Earth. What follows is an amazingly contained and sustained ordeal as they struggle to make it back to Earth safely.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (who wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas) is extraordinarily rigorous about point-of-view, almost never showing us material which would not be visible to the protagonists, and only allowing such sounds as would be likely to transmit through spacesuits to be heard. In one groundbreaking shot, the camera drifts, almost lazily, inside Sandra Bullock’s helmet and back out again. What’s impressive is that this doesn’t seem like showboating, it’s a natural part of the visual grammar of the movie.

It isn’t perfect. Most of the technical quibbles are irrelevant to me, when they got so much else right. I don’t really care that the shuttle has been decommissioned, or that orbital mechanics make journeys from one craft to another much more complex than is depicted here. I’m sure the law and medicine I see practiced in movies isn’t accurate either. So what? But I do have some issues of pure audience credibility in the last few minutes.

And the tone wobbles a little in the middle. By making the bold, and probably correct, decision to avoid clumsy flashbacks to her life back on Earth, Cuarón as writer and director requires that Sandra Bullock’s back-story is delivered almost entirely in two brief dialogue scenes, at least one of which felt just a little forced. But Bullock and Clooney both do excellent work here – theirs are basically the only faces we see – aided by (of course) Ed Harris as mission control, voice only and precious little of that.

Gravity is an extraordinary achievement, a fine adventure story in a breathtaking environment, helmed with precision and rigour. I don’t know how much of it will live with me, but I’ve very, very pleased to have seen it, and delighted to see it get made. Such a strongly authored piece, with no franchise to back it (and it’s essentially immune to sequels) deserves to do well and it’s been killing it at the box office.

There is even talk of Oscar nominations – about which, more very shortly…

Six more bridge hands

Posted on November 8th, 2013 in Bridge | No Comments »

A decent session just now, playing with a variety of different partners.

Hand one

I pick a rather shapely 5143 hand with 9 HCP, not enough to open, but enough to bid 2S over their 1NT overcall. West responds with 3H and partner doubles which I assume is for penalties. Defending 3HX, partner leads the spade five to my Queen. I cash my Ace, noting (but not surprised by) partner’s discard. I lead my spade nine for partner to ruff and partner now cashes AK of trumps which defeats the contract, declarer winning the rest of the tricks. Not a bad result, but several NS pairs made 3NT, one doubled and one with an overtrick. Partner, holding AK of hearts should realise we controlled all four suits and with my 2S bid showing 10HCP could have bid game instead of doubling. 0.2 IMPs to them.

Hand two

Another shapely hand for me – this time with a five card heart suit and a spade singleton, but not enough to open, so it’s passed around to West who starts with 1NT. Partner passes and so does East, but I’m damned if I’ll let them quietly stack up seven tricks in no trumps, and partner could have quite a few points, and not have a suitable bid, so I try 2H, which is raised to 3H by partner, which becomes the contract. The defence start off with a low spade and dummy comes down with AKQ7 in spades, plus four good hearts. I cash the Queen (not the Ace – if I cash the Ace I will have to remember that the King and Queen are good later) and proceed to draw trumps, the missing Ace popping up on the first round.

Having no better return, West leads another trump, East showing out and I draw the final trump with dummy’s Jack. Now I’m a little stuck. I have two more top spades but no way to establish the seven. I have two more winning trumps, but that still leaves me two tricks short and it’s likely that the missing AQ of diamonds and clubs are all with West. Anyway, I cash the Ace and King of spades, since I can ruff any spade return, and lacking any other good ideas, I try the diamond finesse, but of course, my King is covered by the Ace. West follows up with the Queen which spikes my Jack, but West no longer has a good lead. More by luck than by design, I’ve executed an Elimination End-play. West has no spades or hearts left to lead and leading a diamond gives me a ruff-and-discard.

That having been said, West can still set the contract by one by leading another diamond. After my ruff-and-discard, I can try the club finesse again, but again it will fail and so the defence will take the setting trick. After a lot of thought, West actually lead the Ace of clubs. Now whatever happens, I will take the last four tricks.

At other tables, 1NT made and so did 2S for West, so our 3H making was very good. Two foolhardy NS pairs tried 4H, one doubled, neither making. 4.3 IMPs to us.

Hand three

With my flat 12 point hand, I open 1C since we are playing five card majors. Partner responds 1S but I feel I have no good bid over East’s 1NT overcall, and this is passed out.

The play is not especially interesting as the hands are very balanced. We make some diamond tricks, they make some spade tricks, but no-one even has a five card suit so no-one can get a suit established. Eventually they make it with an overtrick, which is a common outcome at other tables, although some pairs were held to seven tricks, so 2.5 IMPs away.

Hand four

Partner opens with a weak two hearts and I look down at 14 points but only three hearts myself and a flatter shape than I ideally would like. With a singleton or a void I would bid on to game, but with my 3352 hand, I just bid 3H over East’s double. West passes and so does partner, and East now goes on to bid a rather reckless 4C. With a third club to my King I might have doubled, but after partner’s pass I did not want to compete, so 4C it is.

I start off with a low heart which runs to declarer’s Ace. Rather than pull trumps, Declarer returns a heart and I win my King. Dummy is now out of hearts, so leading my last heart is pointless. Instead I switch to the diamond King (top of a sequence). Declarer covers with the Ace and prefers to take dummy’s last diamond instead of starting in on those trumps. So I’m back in with my Queen and try a spade which gratifyingly partner wins with the Ace. Even more gratifyingly, partner returns a spade to my King and then I give partner a spade ruff. That’s five tricks to us already, and when declarer leads the Queen of clubs from dummy, I win my King and that’s three down and 1.9 IMPs to us.

Hand five

Partner opens 1D and having no four card major, I raise to 3D, expecting to end up in 3NT. On reflection, 2C is probably a better bid. Since partner might have only three diamonds, I need to have five for the raise, and 2C is forcing so I will get another chance to bid while keeping the level a bit lower. As it is, partner bids 3H which I convert to 3NT, satisfied that we have all bases covered.

The defence cash two top spades and then try a third spade, presumably hoping to find partner with Qxx, but actually I have the Queen – but no more spades left. West is now sitting on two established spades, but that shouldn’t be an issue as I have nine top tricks now. I run through the clubs which spit 3-2 so I pick up the nine as well, and then cash three top diamonds and ace of hearts for ten tricks and 5.3 IMPs. One or two pairs made +2 and one even made 5C but several were messing around in part scores or defending an EW heart game undoubled.

Three pairs made only eight tricks in NT, all with North declaring. If East leads, the obvious spade lead creates a finesse of the Queen in dummy, allowing West to make five spade tricks off the top. And the sequence 1D – 2C – 2NT is a perfectly good description of North’s hand. In fact, arguably better than 1D – 2C – 2H because North should know partner doesn’t have four hearts or they would have been bid.

Hand six

Playing with a new partner, I pick up a flat 17 and open 1NT (playing strong no-trumps). Partner eschews transfers or Stayman and bids 2NT which I obviously convert to 3NT with my maximum-strength hand. I’m a little surprised to see dummy come down with ten high card points (suggesting a jump to game) and even more surprised to see four hearts to the Ace (suggesting Stayman). 3NT will need a bit of doing here.

West starts off with a low diamond, East tries the Jack and I play the Ace. I can only withstand one more round of diamonds so I need to be careful. As well as two diamond tricks I can count five club tricks and the Ace of hearts, that’s seven. The KQ of spades should be worth one trick and then I’ll have to try and do something with those eight hearts. Getting to work on the hearts is a priority, so I try the Jack which falls under East’s Queen.

East continues the diamond assault, but this time I play low, hoping to exhaust one opponent of diamonds before I have to play my King. On the third round of diamonds, I throw a spade and since West has followed each time, I now know that West only has the Queen left. North switches to a spade and when West plays the ten, I take the chance to win my Queen.

Back to the hearts now and I lead the five over to the ten which West wins with the King, but East has followed suit again. That means the outstanding hearts were 3-2 which in turn means that I can safely play the Ace and have a winner left in the shape of the lowly seven. However, it’s all too late. Getting here has taken so long and cost me so many tricks, that all West has to do now is play the Ace of spades, winning the setting trick for the defence. For some reason, however, West actually played the diamond Queen, which fell under my King, following which I cashed my clubs, crossed to my Ace of hearts and won the final trick with the seven.

In fact, as the King is singleton, playing out the Ace will win – as indeed it will in any situation other than one opponent having Kxx since I also have the ten. But it’s hard to know that at the time.

Even this miracle win wasn’t enough to get us positive IMPs though. Our 400 for 3NT bid-and-made is less than the 420 made by the dozen or more people playing and making 4H, some of them with over-tricks.