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Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Gravity: a disappointing film; but a thought-provoking spiritual meditation. You can read this review at Jericho Tree.

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Just a bit of stupid fun, in case you haven’t seen this floating around Facebook: The ‘List Challenges’ site gives you ‘The Top 250 Movies of All Time’, according to IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) – ‘as voted by our users’. Of course I disagree profoundly with the list, but that’s the point of lists like this.

films

You mark the films you have seen as you scroll through, and then it gives you the total. I was disappointed not to get 50% – my score was 117 out of 250. However, I took the moral high ground and decided to exclude from my check list those films I have walked out of and not seen to the end. I think I would have got to 50% with them.

It’s strange what you remember: I can recall the scene, the cinema, and just about the very place I was sitting of almost every film I have ever walked out from. As if the existential anxiety of cutting one’s losses and choosing to leave the ‘hallowed space’ of the cinema puts an indelible mark on the soul.

The first ‘walk out’ I remember was Fatal Attraction. This was when I was an undergraduate, in the old cinema near Parker’s Piece in Cambridge in about 1988, which has since been converted into a Weatherspoons pub on the ground floor and the new Arts Cinema on the first floor.

So you can do the list here. And do put your results in the comment box; and if you have had any particularly significant ‘walking out’ moments, do share them!

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annie hall by lisa norwood

I’m in the process of moving out of Allen Hall after eight very happy years on the seminary staff. I’ve had one or two farewell gatherings, and some lovely gifts. The most thoughtful and unexpected one was from the seminarians themselves.

I thought they might give me something predictable like a bottle of wine or a manual of theology to set me straight after all the wild lectures I have given them. Instead, at a farewell dinner near the end of term, they presented me with a vintage 1977 poster for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: one of the smaller ‘lobby style’ prints, with a certificate of authentication pasted on the back.

What a great idea! We just happen to have a vintage film poster shop round the corner – Limelight Movie Art (this is Chelsea…). They told me the lovely story of going into the shop. Knowing how particular I am, instead of random buying, they found a post on this blog about my favourite films of all time, and took this list in with them. They showed it to the shop assistant, who spent a few minutes perusing the list, looked back up to the seminarians, and uttered the immortal words, ‘Your friend has very expensive tastes…’ I took that as an indirect compliment from one film buff to another.

In the end, they opted for a small Annie Hall poster rather than a large but apparently less visually interesting poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s mounted, but I need to frame it and hang it in Newman House when I arrive. I’d love to start collecting, but just look at the prices…

This image I’ve pasted above isn’t the poster they got me, but it’s the only one I could find copyright free online. My one is Diane Keaton leaning over Woody Allen on the sofa, with him completely oblivious to her attentions as he reads the newspaper.

Oh, and by the way, in case you clicked on this post because of the title above, my new two greatest films of all time, that have risen quite unexpectedly to the top over the last two years, are The Tree of Life and The Place Beyond the Pines.

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There was an extraordinary moment in the evolution of human consciousness and the sociology of cinema etiquette last week. Perhaps it was the first time it had ever taken place – and I was there as a witness! Like being there in 1903 when the Wright brothers flew their way into history; or sitting in the space capsule as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon.

754px-The_Wright_Brothers_First_Heavier-than-air_Flight_-_GPN-2002-000128

So I’m sitting in the Cineworld Fulham Road last week as the trailers take place before the new Start Trek film (disappointing: 6/10). The guy next to me takes out his mobile phone, checks for messages, leaves it on, and then – this is the Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment – he places it in the moulded plastic fizzy drinks holder attached to the front of the arm rest between us. No self-consciousness; no shame. The bottom of the phone comes forward, towards him; the back leans against the upper edge of the drinks holder; so the phone is at a perfect 37 degree tilt from the vertical for him to see. And he’s watching the film as he is glancing up and down at his incoming messages – like a driver with the TomTom in the edge of vision.

I was too awestruck at the audacity of this technological leap to be shocked. It’s the kind of unforseen improvisation that delights and appalls me at the same time. I bet you big money that within two years there will be dedicated and beautifully designed mobile phone holders on the arm of every cinema seat, but this time just above the fizzy drinks holder. What would my friend have done if he had had a 6 litre carton of coke as well? [Just for the record: This is my idea, and I hold the patent...]

Is this the end of civilisation or the beginning? Is this common in London or New York or Shanghai and I’ve just never witnessed if before?

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The best film of the year? Go and see The Place Beyond the Pines. I know, it’s not even May, and this may be a bit premature. But it’s certainly the best film of my last twelve months, and I’d put good money on it remaining in the top slot until 31 December.

I absolutely cannot tell you any plot, and please don’t read any reviews or watch any trailers, because there were some beautiful moments of revelation that would have been destroyed if I had known what was coming. All I’ll say is this: it’s perhaps the most profound study of fatherhood I’ve ever seen on film. And if there is a topic that needs real consideration in our culture today it is this.

This isn’t meant to be a reflective post, just an advert! If you want to see a serious, thought-provoking, beautiful and thrilling piece of film-making, go and see this before it disappears onto the small screen.

I managed to find a YouTube clip that is not a trailer. Take a look at this bravura extended-take opening scene. The film is much more than this; but what a way to start!

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oblivion Tom Cruise movie by bubbletea1

Oblivion. It’s a good film.

The cinematography is outstanding. Not showy (in fact the first half is minimalist, almost art-house), but clean, crisp, with a breathtaking integration of natural landscape and CGI. It’s way beyond Avatar. And part of the reason is because it is not 3D; how much the director must have fought the pressure from the studio to ‘upgrade’.

The plot rehashes the best elements of 17 sci-fi classics. I won’t even name them, in case you start predicting the twists. There is nothing original here, but it works, it’s well-crafted, and there are only a couple of niggles when you start saying, ‘Hang on a minute…!’ I’d like to spend an evening with a few sci-fi buffs trying to spot the references. You can do this in the comments if you have some spare time.

And Tom Cruise manages to avoid being Tom Cruise. For most of the film I forgot he was Tom Cruise. He was almost the Everyman Hero Figure of Richard Dreyfuss and Matt Damon. What’s his secret in this film? He didn’t try to smile or to look serious; he just got on with the job. And so the Tom Cruise smirk and the Tom Cruise furrowed-brow was kept at bay.

I was going to embed one of the trailers for the film for your delectation, but I can’t in conscience do that. I’ve just watched two official trailers, and they both give away almost all of the most significant plot twists – the ‘aaaahhhh…’ moments that make cinema worthwhile. It’s baffling. I made a point of avoiding every review before I saw the film, and it was worth it.

If you are not into sci-fi, don’t bother. But it’s a beautifully shot and satisfying film.

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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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I’m not saying it was the best film of the year, but Ben Affleck’s Argo was way, way better than Lincoln, Life of Pi, and even Zero Dark Thirty – see my earlier post here. I haven’t seen Amour, so I can’t say whether Affleck deserved to triumph over Haneke; but he is certainly a worthy winner.

And yes, Jennifer Lawrence was much more interesting in Silver Linings Playbook than Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, even though I would still have given Chastain the Oscar for her role in Malick’s The Tree of Life (I know, that was two years ago; I’m still haunted by it…).

Here is the Argo trailer, in case you missed it:

You can read about the full results here.

And if you are curious, see my two year old post about “How they decide the Oscar winners” here.

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This is the accusation from Naomi Wolf, in an open letter to Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, Kathryn Bigelow:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

This is Bigelow’s defence:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

And this is Slavoj Žižek’s response to Bigelow’s response:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture.

I saw the film at the weekend, and I think Wolf is right.

It’s not, as Žižek argues, the supposed neutrality of the depiction; some of the most powerful indictments of evil have come about through stark, cool-eyed, non-judgmental descriptions of the reality of what has taken place – bringing the horror into the moral daylight, even without explicit  moral comment.

Nor is it, as Wolf herself writes, the factual question about whether torture was or was not effective in helping the US to locate Bin Laden.

It’s much simpler, and it’s to do with the nature of film and not with arguments about historical truth. It’s the fact that in the dramatic arc of the film, torture is justified; whatever ethical unease we may have as thinkers and moralists, in cinematic terms, we identify emotionally with the protagonist, the heroine, so that the plot device (in this case torture) becomes – whether we like it or not – emotionally justified.

The plot is very simple: men are captured; men are tortured; some of them give information; Maya, the intrepid CIA agent, won’t give up on her hunt for Bin Laden; some of this information, combined with other information, leads Maya to discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Bin Laden is killed. Even if your conscience says that torture is always wrong, even if the horrific portrayal of torture in this film actually makes you firmer in your opposition to torture, at an emotional level you can’t help wanting Maya to find him (this is what we do in films, we root for the protagonist, we long to find the ‘MacGuffin‘), and as a viewer caught up in the chase, you can’t help being grateful that the information was finally found – whatever the means.

As a film, it’s gripping and beautifully produced, but still slightly disappointing. There is very little context or background; we never really understand what makes Maya tick; it’s two-dimensional.

Another moral issue, equally important, gets completely ignored in the film: whether it is right to assassinate someone in these circumstances. Everyone in the film, on Maya’s side, wants to find Bin Laden and kill him; no-one asks whether this is justified, morally or legally. I’m surprised and even worried that reviewers don’t seem to have commented on this (but let me know if you have seen a review that has).

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I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise':

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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Classy film-making: Argo

Argo: directed by Ben Affleck.

I’ve nothing deep to say – it’s just a great, great film. Assured directing; confident, underplayed acting; a plot that keeps moving; incredible tension in the set-pieces. Craftsmanship. Everything a thriller should be. And it’s true! Go see…

The best review I can find so far is by Robbie Collin here.

The screenplay is based on a Wired article which you can read here.

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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Great news for Hitchcock fans: a massive retrospective at the British Film Institute this summer.

Mark Brown reports:

Alfred Hitchcock is to be celebrated like never before this summer, with a retrospective of all his surviving films and the premieres of his newly restored silent films – including Blackmail, which will be shown outside the British Museum.

The BFI on Tuesday announced details of its biggest ever project: celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.”

One of the highlights of the season will be the culmination of a three-year project to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films. It will involve The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock’s first, being shown at Wilton’s Music Hall; The Ring at Hackney Empire, and Blackmail outside the British Museum, where the film’s climactic chase scene was filmed in 1929, both inside the building and on the roof.

For me, the excitement is not really about the restorations, it’s simply about seeing all the classics on the big screen. Can you believe that I have only ever seen Rear Window on DVD?

Between August and October the BFI will show all 58 surviving Hitchcock films including his many films made in the UK – The 39 Steps, for example, and The Lady Vanishes – and those from his Hollywood years, from Rebecca in 1940 to Vertigo in 1957, The Birds in 1963 and his penultimate film, Frenzy, in 1972.

And Psycho, of course. “Psycho is a great work of modern art,” said Stewart. “Who hasn’t stood in the shower and had a little moment.”

Special guests during the Genius of Hitchcock season will include Tippi Hedren, the hapless victim of bird attacks in the film of the same name, and Bruce Dern who starred with Hedren in Marnie

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Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life introduced me to a huge collection of classical music I hadn’t heard before. There is one piece I can’t get out of my head, even months later – it just comes to me in the street, and brings back the pathos and beauty of the whole film.

I finally looked it up this morning. First, I found this great page from THE PLAYLIST that lists ‘all 37 songs’ featured in the film, and has links to recordings of many of them. Then I found the track that has been haunting me, which turns out to be: Pièces de clavecin, Book II 6e Ordre N°5: Les Barricades Mistérieuses, by Francois Couperin (1668-1733).

Here is one version:

And another on piano:

Does anyone know anything about Couperin?

OK, I know this can get a bit obsessive, the YouTube browsing, but here is the last version I’ll post, my favourite so far, which is slightly slower, and much more captivating for that.

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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I finally saw The Artist at the weekend. It’s great fun – I came out smiling. But I wouldn’t say it’s a great film. The two central characters are just not interesting enough to carry the film. I’m not sure if this is intentional. Maybe they are symbols of all the silent-movie characters who had to emote and over-act and gesticulate, but couldn’t reveal any emotional depth. I think it’s probably just a weakness in the screenplay: the lead male, especially, was basically a spoilt teenager; and the resolution [minor plot spoiler coming up...] was just him getting his toys back. I’m not complaining, just reflecting!

But the psychological experience of watching a silent film for the first time in years was interesting. I was more detached as an observer. I was more aware of my own experience of watching the film, as if there was a kind of veil between me and the situation on the screen in front of me. I was less caught up in the imaginary reality of the story, but enjoying it just as much.

It made me realise that in a normal cinema experience, it’s as if I am inside the world being portrayed in the film – lost in it. But in this silent experience, it was as if the film was in my head, and I was conscious of myself watching it, and of the film becoming a part of me – but not taking over. Put it another way, I didn’t lose my self-consciousness; or my ‘consciousness-of-self’ as the French put it (because they don’t have the reflexive use of ‘self’). Interesting.

What did you think of the film?

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Rotten Tomatoes is still my favourite site for film reviews. You get a percentage score for each film, a summary of each review, and – most importantly – a link to the original reviews themselves.

But every now and then it drives me mad. It scores each movie solely on the basis of how many positive reviews it has, but it doesn’t give any weighting to each review. So if 100/100 reviewers quite like a film (and give it say 3 stars out of 5), it gets the same score – 100% – as it would if 100/100 reviewers absolutely adore the film (and give it say 5 stars out of 5). So a bland, unprovocative film that managed to mildly please most critics would get a very high score.

This is what set me off last week: I went to see Moneyball partly on the basis that it got 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it’s a well-made and thought-provoking film; but it’s also boring, over-long, and not half as funny or intelligent as it should be. This is what the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system can do.

(Maybe I am unjustifiably taking it out on this innocent website. It still got a staggering 87% on Metacritic. Maybe, in this case, it’s the critics themselves who are almost universally wrong. How can Robbie Collin at the Daily Telegraph call it ‘an accomplished, bracingly intelligent film that scores points on all fronts…’?!)

The solution to this problem? Do what Metacritic does. Instead of just adding up the number of positive reviews a film gets, give a certain weighting to each review according to how positive the reviewer was. They also (I’ve just found out) give some reviewers greater weight – as if they trust their judgment more than others. And, it has to be said, the site is really crisp and beautiful – unlike the Rotten Tomatoes site.

Here is the explanation:

A peek behind the curtain

Creating our proprietary Metascores is a complicated process. We carefully curate a large group of the world’s most respected critics, assign scores to their reviews, and apply a weighted average to summarize the range of their opinions. The result is a single number that captures the essence of critical opinion in one Metascore. Each movie, game, television show and album featured on Metacritic gets a Metascore when we’ve collected at least four critics’ reviews.

Why the term “weighted average” matters

Metascore is a weighted average in that we assign more importance, or weight, to some critics and publications than others, based on their quality and overall stature. In addition, for music and movies, we also normalize the resulting scores (akin to “grading on a curve” in college), which prevents scores from clumping together.

How to interpret a Metascore

Metascores range from 0-100, with higher scores indicating better overall reviews. We highlight Metascores in three colors so that you can instantly compare: green scores for favorable reviews, yellow scores for mixed reviews, and red scores for unfavorable reviews.

Why do I stay with Rotten Tomatoes? Simply because the UK site gives you reviews from the UK press, which Metacritic doesn’t, and lists the films under their UK launch date – so you can see what is out this week. If there were a UK Metacritic I would switch to it immediately. And if I had time I’d set about developing one. Maybe there is some money to be made here…

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Here is my review of Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), which was first published on the Independent Catholic News site:

The Pope is dead. The Conclave is assembled in the Sistine Chapel. Three heavyweight cardinals, the bookies’ favourites, surge ahead in the first few ballots of the ensuing election – only to fall into a deadlock. When a compromise candidate is eventually chosen from the backbenches he steps forward with a humble heart and a nervous smile. But his courage fails him, and just as he is invited onto the balcony to greet the waiting world, he runs back to his room in terror, and eventually escapes into the city to contemplate the strange turn of events that has brought him to this point.

It’s an unusual theme for Italian director Nanni Moretti, a self-professed atheist. Many viewers might have expected him to put together a hard-hitting expose of ecclesiastical corruption, or at least to take a few easy swipes at the Catholic Church. Instead, we get a light-comedy that treats its ecclesiastical protagonists with amused curiosity and uncritical affection.

It’s an entertaining two hours, but it never really opens up the central question of how a man gets chosen for this high office, or why this particular man finds it impossible to bear. Veteran actor Michel Piccoli brings out the dignity and vulnerability of the avuncular Pontiff; but we don’t get any sense of what this inner struggle means to him.

There are some great scenes. Moretti himself plays a secular psychoanalyst brought into the Vatican to help the Pope overcome his paralysis. Their first session takes place before the assembled cardinals, and the visiting therapist is told he is free to explore any areas of the Pope’s life, apart from… his relationships, his childhood, his mother, etc. Moretti, dumfounded, ploughs on. The clash of cultures, of mentalities – religious and secular, classical and post-Freudian – is illustrated with such gentleness and humour.

We see a particularly corpulent Swiss guard being led into the papal apartments, and realise he is the Pope’s stand-in, charged with opening the curtains in the morning and switching off the lights at night. On the second day he discovers a penchant for method acting and feels obliged to polish off the lavish Pontifical breakfast; and by the third day he can’t resist the flourish of a papal blessing, raising his hand in benediction from behind the net curtains.

And when the Vatican spokesperson is asked why the new Pope has not appeared and what this unprecedented event means for the wider Church, he responds “It’s perfectly normal for a Holy Father to seek some space for prayer and reflection as he prepares for his new responsibilities” – the kind of pious flannel that so easily becomes a substitute for an uncomfortable truth.

The ending, which I won’t give away, is unsatisfactory. It doesn’t make dramatic sense of what’s come before, and it highlights the fact that the film is a collection of amusing vignettes rather than a coherent whole. We Have a Pope provokes a few reflections about vocation, the yawning gap between office and person, and the relationship between priesthood and acting, but it fails to make any deep impressions. It’s not tough enough or funny enough to avoid falling into whimsy. Directors like Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) are somehow able to mix light comedy and even slapstick with themes of profound seriousness; I wish Moretti had managed to do the same.

[Two stars out of five]

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After my last post about daring to switch off your mobile phone for the two hour duration of a film, a friend sent me a link to the Wittertainment Code of Conduct, which I hadn’t seen before.

Here are some highlights:

No eating of anything harder than a soft roll with no filling. No-one wants to hear you crunch, chew or masticate in any way.

No slurping of drinks. You’ve already drunk a 5 litre flagon of pop, you really don’t need the melting ice too. You are not six years old.

No rustling of super high-density, rustle-o-matic, extra rustle bags. No foraging of any kind. If you’re going to need it during the film, get it out beforehand.

No talking. You are in a cinema. You have come here to watch, not to discuss. Or ‘engage’, or ‘participate’, or ‘explain’, or whatever. More importantly, no-one in the cinema has paid £8.50 to hear your director’s commentary on the movie. Just sit down and shut up.

No mobile phone usage. At all. Not even on ‘flight mode’. This isn’t an aeroplane, it’s a cinema. Even if you’re not yapping, you are still creating light pollution. Put your thumbs away.

No shoe removal. You are not in your own front room. Nor are you in Japan (unless you are, in which case, carry on). A cinema is a public space. Keep your bodily odours to yourself.

You can tell there is a lot of unresolved rage behind the writing of these rules. Many years, perhaps, of having your art-house movie ruined by a box of nachos behind you or six inches of ice that simply won’t melt being swirled around the cup by the person in the seat to your side.

I’d adapt these slightly. Talking is OK for me, through the adverts and trailers, up to the moment when the age certification slide comes up, as long as no plot is discussed. I’ve already confessed on this blog to putting my fingers in my ears and humming loudly when a trailer comes up for a film I want to see but don’t want to be ruined by spoilers. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I did this once when a couple in the row in front of me started revealing key moments in the plot of the very film that we were about to watch! It was either the humming and the fingers in the ears or pretending to have a heart attack in the hope of distracting them from the conversation they were having.

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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The Tree of Life

Some films are too beautiful and too powerful to be written about, at least not until a few weeks have passed, when you are writing about a memory and not an unmediated experience. Thank goodness I managed to avoid not only the reviews, but also any stray plot summaries that were floating around the blogs and papers, so that every twist and turn and even each new scene felt like an unfolding revelation. And once I had seen that the main poster in the UK was full of stills from the picture, with ‘too much information’, I averted my eyes from that as well. I know, there is some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder here that I need to speak to my therapist about.

Anyway – I won’t say anything (and I won’t even link to the trailer) other than: Go to see this film. Don’t wait for the DVD, don’t download it illegally; just see it on the big screen, before it disappears into art-house obscurity. And if it has already landed there, then travel to the Glasgow Picture House or the Cambridge Movie Palace or wherever it is showing. It really is breathtaking. It really does turn your mind upside down and your heart inside out. It’s pure cinema. I’d better stop, before I start writing about the film.

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I’m a great fan of Don DeLillo, and his Underworld is one of my all-time favourite novels, but Point Omega is a bit disappointing.

 

There is, however, a lovely passage about staying in cinema to watch the credits rolling. Here it is:

I used to sit through the credits, all of them, when I went to the movies. It was a practice that worked against intuition and common sense. I was in my early twenties, unaffiliated in every respect, and I never left my seat until the full run of names and titles was completed. The titles were a language out of some ancient war. Clapper, armorer, boom operator, crowd costumes.

I felt compelled to sit and read. There was a sense that I was capitulating to some moral failing. The starkest case of this occurred after the final shot of a major Hollywood production when the credits began to roll, a process that lasted five, ten, fifteen minutes and included hundreds of names, a thousand names. It was the decline and fall, a spectacle of excess nearly equal to the movie itself, but I didn’t want it to end.

It was part of the experience, everything mattered, absorb it, endure it, stunt driving, set dressing, payroll accounting. I read the names, all of them, most of them, real people, who were they, why so many, names that haunted me in the dark. By the time the credits ended I was alone in the theater, maybe an old woman sitting somewhere, widowed, children never call.

I’m not quite this obsessive; but nearly…

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We often think that the big lies are the important/damaging ones – and they usually are. But the small lies, and even the ‘innocent’ white lies, can be equally destructive. It’s not just because they can set a pattern of deception that might have greater consequences; it’s also because the core moral decision to deceive or to conceal something apparently trivial often reflects a much bigger background compromise that we are wanting to make.

We justify small lies by saying they are of no real consequence. But if that’s really the case, why do we think that simply telling the truth in this minor matter would be such a difficult option?

Last Night is 6/10 film about a young married couple in New York tempted by infidelity. The husband goes away for a business meeting with a gorgeous and seductive colleague; and that same night his wife bumps into her former French boyfriend who was never really reconciled to their separation. What will they do? What choices will they make?

The ‘will they/won’t they?’ tease is what keeps the slightly dull plot moving forward. But the moral interest, for me, lies in those moments when they have to decide how much truth to tell, or when we realise that something not insignificant from the past has been concealed. Infidelity (don’t worry – I’m not giving the plot away) very often depends on whether or not someone is willing to tell the truth about the ordinary, boring things.

When you are about to tell a small or habitual lie, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why?

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I’ve just come across the DIEM project which tracks your eye movements as you watch something and sees exactly where your attention is fixed at each moment. You could spend hours on this, but here are three of my favourite video clips.

“This is an excerpt from There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). 11 adult viewers were shown the video and their eye movements recorded using an Eyelink 1000 (SR Research) infra-red camera-based eyetracker. Each dot represents the center of one viewer’s gaze. The size of each dot represents the length of time they have held fixation.”

There are different ways of displaying the eye movements, as explained on the DIEM project website:

The DIEM project is an investigation of how people look and see. DIEM has so far collected data from over 250 participants watching 85 different videos. The data together with CARPE will let you visualize where people look during dynamic scene viewing such as during film trailers, music videos, or advertisements. CARPE, or Computational and Algorithmic Representation and Processing of Eye-movements, allows one to begin visualizing eye-movement data in a number of ways.

There are a number of different visualization options:

  • low level visual features that process the input video to show flicker or edges;
  • heat-maps that show where people are looking;
  • clustered heat-maps that use pattern recognition to define the best model of fixations for each frame;
  • peek-through which uses the heat-map information to only show parts of the video where people are looking.

The next two clips use the heat maps, which show where the communal gaze is fixed by aggregating the focal points of individual viewers. The first frenetic piece is from the Simpsons, and shows how we tend to follow the action. But notice how we try to read any written words that pop up in the picture even if they are not at the centre of the activity (e.g. the blackboard in the classroom).

The next is from the third US Presidential debate between Obama and McCain. Keep watching to see how the attention changes as the camera pulls back, and the wives come onto the stage.

I don’t know what we learn from all this! Film directors, psychologists, and advertisers must all be fascinated to analyse the results.

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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How could someone lie about the films they have seen? How could someone pretend to have seen a film that comes up in the dinner-table conversation and expect to get away with it?

I’m not being self-righteous here; I’m not even talking about the ethics of lying. I just wouldn’t have the courage to start nodding my head as someone describes some breathtaking scene from a recent movie, in the knowledge that they might ask me what I thought, or what happened next, or what colour the wallpaper was. Basically, I’m not a good liar, and the terror of being found out overcomes the terror of facing the consequences of telling the truth.

Yet, it seems, four out of five people lie about the films they have seen in order to impress others; and one in three of us claims to have seen the Godfather when the nearest we’ve been to the film is hearing the theme tune in a lift. Ben Child reports about the lovefilm.com research.

Second on the list is the 1942 Humphrey Bogart tearjerker Casablanca, which perhaps explains why so many people seem to be confused about its most famous line. More than one in 10 said they had fabricated a viewing.

In third place was Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, from 1976. Eleven per cent of people said they had lied about having seen the director’s drama about a mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran. Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs rounded out the poll’s top five.

Lovefilm editor Helen Cowley said: “Whether it is a small white lie about having seen a cult classic or nodding along to friends as they recount the infamous horse head scene in The Godfather, there are some films that we just do not want to admit we have not watched.”

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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Many discussions about freedom try to push you to an extreme position: you are either completely determined and in denial about this, or radically free to determine what you will do and who you will become. [WARNING: minor plot-spoilers coming up]

The film The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, has a nice take on this. The visible, historical world – our ordinary reality – is watched over by members of the Adjustment Bureau. Their job is to make sure that the Plan unfolds as it should – a Plan for human civilisation as a whole, and for each individual. But instead of pulling every string, like Ed Harris sitting in his control room in The Truman Show, they let things take their own course, and step in every now and then to make minor ‘adjustments’, carefully planned interventions that nudge our lives in one direction or another, without causing too many ‘ripples’ that might cause us to think we are in hands of a higher power. We experience these adjustments as accidents or chance events, but they are the workings of an invisible fate giving shape to our lives. The plot turns on a wonderful scene when one member of the Bureau misses his cue, and someone doesn’t spill a cup of coffee as they are meant to, so that the Plan unravels.

The film illustrates a simple truth: that the whole course of our lives depends on chance events and unplanned encounters. It takes up these themes from those wonderful films Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. We think we are, to a certain extent, in control of our lives; yet we are not in control of the insignificant happenings that have most significance for our lives. Is it Fate? Providence? Chance?

It’s a light-hearted thriller-cum-comedy-romance, beautifully executed, with one or two weighty ideas from Dick. It has the feel of a Magritte painting come to life. If you like sci-fi, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, or casual musings about human freedom, you’ll enjoy it. And if you like all four, as I do, you’ll have a ball.

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Did you know that one of the 6,404 people who vote for the Oscars is a Roman Catholic nun? Dolores Hart, who stole a kiss from Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, retired from the film business and became a nun at the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut – but not before she had entered the inner sanctum and won the right to vote. She’s now 72, and continues to vote when the review copies are sent to her monastery each year.

In case you are not sure, it's Woody Allen

I’d never quite understood who gets to vote for the Oscars, and how the whole process works. Tom Shone explains everything:

There are 6,404 of them, mostly living in the Los Angeles area, with further pockets in northern California, New York City and London. They are, by a small majority, male. Their average age is about 57. Rupert Murdoch is one, as are Pedro Almódovar and Sasha Baron Cohen. George Lucas, Woody Allen and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not. And on 27 February they will announce to an audience of more than 30 million people the results of a secret ballot that will determine the course of careers, cause corporate stock prices to rocket, and induce howls of outrage in office pools and viewing parties around the world.

“They”, of course, are the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group of entertainment industry professionals responsible for handing out the Oscars every year. The Academy’s headquarters are housed in an impassive, mirrored-glass structure on Wilshire Boulevard, suggestive of the fact that Ampas does not like to reveal much about its inner workings. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and the approval of a board of governors; but once in, you’re in for life, a fact that has been used by the organisation’s critics to conjure up an image of doddering retirees, too entangled in their oxygen tanks to fill out their ballots. When Henry Fonda and James Garner admitted their wives filled out their ballots for them, there was uproar.

Ann Thompson is a columnist with the Indiewire website, who recently attended the governor’s ball thrown by the Academy in honour of Jean-Luc Godard. “One of the things I noticed is there’s a huge bubble of baby boomers at the Academy. They’re all very knowledgeable. They’re very liberal. They’re over 50 for the most part, but it’s a fairly hip demo[graphic]. It’s that group of people who grew up in the 70s and were shaped by a film-maker like Godard. They voted for Silence of the Lambs for best picture, they voted for Traffic, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s not a monolithic body. You can almost track the fate of any one film by tracking its course through the different branches.”

The Academy comprises 15 branches, of which the biggest and most powerful voting bloc is the actors, with 1,205 members, 22% of the total; they are the ones who ensured a win for The Hurt Locker last year, after they remained unconvinced the blue people in Avatar were delivering real performances. They are closely followed by the producers (452 members) and executives (437) who, together with the publicists (368), says Thompson, trend “a little more to the mainstream, for movies such as The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. They’re the group Harvey Weinstein knows how to play to.”

Finally you have the various crafts guilds – sound, effects, sets, costumes and so on – who tend to get more male and red-blooded the further down the credits you go. Thompson calls them the “steak-eaters”: the set-builders and property-masters who are attracted to “large-scale solid narratives such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, The Town, True Grit. Even Inception plays to the steak-eaters. It’s a big group. It probably describes most of the Academy.” It’s this group that bailed on Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain in 2006, thus ensuring a win for Crash – one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history – and this year helped keep the nominations for Lisa Cholodenko’s same-sex marriage drama, The Kids Are All Right, down to a minimum.

“The steak-eaters are the reason Annette Bening keeps losing,” says Jeffrey Wells, who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere website. “Call it the steak-eater vote, call it the old geezer vote, call it the babe vote. They always vote for the babes.” More recently, though, Wells has detected signs of a fresher breeze sweeping through the Academy’s ranks. “For most of the history of the Academy, going back to 1927, the film that wins best picture tends to be the one that makes you cry. That gets you where you live. It says something that’s true and recognisable about the state of our lives that gets you on an emotional level. But [Ampas president] Tom Sherak has been aggressively bringing in newer members, and over the last few years the emotional gut-punch movies have not been winning. Except when Brokeback Mountain lost: that was the last surge, the last stand of what I call the ‘geezer vote’. That was basically the people like Tony Curtis, the 70-plus crowd who couldn’t abide the idea of two sheep-herders getting it on. That was the last time.”

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