Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2015. It was way ahead at the nominations stage of the Hugos, for reasons that we will get to, and achieved a comfortable victory on the final ballot.

There was an unusually strong overlap between the two awards, as all five Hugo finalists were also on the Bradbury ballot; the other four were Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow and The Lego Movie. The Bradbury Award had one more finalist, Birdman (which won the Oscar, so I’ll get to it next). The only one of these I have seen is The Lego Movie, and I loved it.

769 nominations was the highest number for any Hugo nominee in any category that year. Of course this was the year of the Puppies, when five categories were No-Awarded. Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the only Puppy nominee which actually won. It’s pretty clear that it would have been on the ballot anyway even without Puppy assistance – there were at most 300 Puppy nominators, so even taking them away has it level-pegging with Interstellar, and both of them well ahead of any other nominee, Puppy or not.

IMDB users rank Guardians of the Galaxy 2nd and 7th best film of the year on the two rankings. Interstellar is top of both lists. Might it have won the Hugo without the Puppies? The winning margin was less than 800 votes, and there were over a thousand Puppy voters. We’ll never know.

I found one actor who had been in a previous Oscar winner, one from a previous Hug winner, and one actor who had been in Doctor Who. The first of these is John C. Reilly, Rhomann Dey here, who got an Oscar nomination for his role as Renee Zellweger’s husband in Chicago.

Returning from a previous cameo appearance in The Avengers is Stan Lee, aged 90 at the time of filming.

The Doctor Who crossover is a bit more prominent; villainous Nebula is played by Karen Gillan, fresh from her portrayal of Amy Pond.

So, I have to say that I was not really all that impressed. It’s basically yer usual Marvel superhero film, where a bunch of good guys (and a gal) get together to save the universe from the bad guys (and a gal), with superb special effects and action, shafts of wit in the script, and a couple of cute humanoids – Vin Diesel stealing many scenes with only three words.

But I was not really invested in any of the characters or in their quest. I’m putting it just ahead of The Avengers, for having Karen Gillan, but below The Princess Bride, so just above the three-quarter mark down my ranking of Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury winners (41st out of 56).

Next up is that year’s Oscar winner, Birdman, of which I know very little. The following year the Bradbury went to Mad Max: Fury Road and the Hugo to The Martian. I’ll get to them in due course.

Gravity

Gravity won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2014. We have the Hugo statistics which show that it had a very healthy margin over the competition.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Pacific Rim were finalists for both the Hugo and the Bradbury Awards; Frozen and Iron Man 3 were up for the Hugo, and Europa Report and Her for the Bradbury. (That was the year of the last UK Worldcon, when Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.) The only one of those that I have seen is Frozen, and that’s “seen” as in “was in the same room as small children who were watching it”.

IMDB users rate Gravity 3rd best film of the year on one ranking but a surprisingly low 41st on the other. The voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were very favourable – it won seven Oscars, the most ever for any film, other than Cabaret, that did not win Best Picture. I’m with the award voters; I really liked it. I’m putting it at about the 40% mark of my Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners list, in 21st place out of 55, below Aliens and above The Truman Show.

There are only two visible members of the cast (a record low, I think, for this sequence of films), and neither had previously been in an Oscar-winning, Hugo-winning, or Nebula/Bradbury-winning film, and neither has ever been in Doctor Who. We do have the unseen Ed Harris, who was the sinister illusory Parcher in A Beautiful Mind and the equally sinister Christof in The Truman Show; here he is the voice of Mission Control, but is not visible, so no photos.

It’s a very straightforward film about two American astronauts marooned in low earth orbit after a disaster destroys their space shuttle. They are played by impossibly cute actors, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Like Aliens, it does just one thing and does it very well, for only 97 minutes. Clooney and Bullock are both very watchable, but to be honest we are really distracted from their good looks by the unceasing momentum of the plot and the steadily increasing danger of the situation.

Incidentally, at the time of writing, the ten astronauts currently in space have an average age of 46 years and nineteen days, and a median age of 45 years and eleven months, so we can call it an even 46. The youngest, Anna Kikina, is two months past her 38th birthday. The oldest, Koichi Wakata, is three months past his 59th. So Sandra Bullock, at 49, and George Clooney, at 51, are realistically in the current age bracket for astronauts. (In the early days of spaceflight, things were very different.)

I commented after watching Twelve Years A Slave that I looked forward to seeing why Oscar voters thought that Gravity had better cinematography and film editing. Well, it does. It’s a masterpiece of technology, for much of the film putting a single actor into special effects and getting the maximum believable performance out of both her and the system. The weightless sequences are simply amazing. We haven’t seen anything like this before. I am sure that Bullock did not have to try very hard to act exhausted at the end; the entire film depends on her.

The music won an Oscar as well; I wasn’t blown away by it but I liked it well enough.

Not a lot more to say about this, but I glad that I finally got around to watching it. Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy, which won the Hugo and Bradbury Awards the following year, and is rated higher than Birdman which won the Oscar.

12 Years a Slave, and Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and only two others, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay; Gravity got seven Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have seen none of them, though Gravity is next on my list as it won both the Hugo and the SFWA Ray Bradbury Awards.

I have seen very few other films from that year. The only one I sat through with my full attention was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have been in the same room as small children watching Frozen. And I got halfway through Saving Mr Banks before something distracted me and I never got around to finishing it. IMDB users rank 12 Years a Slave 6th best film of the year on one ranking, but only 30th on the other. The Wolf of Wall Street tops both rankings, and Prisoners and The Man of Steel are both ahead of 12 Years a Slave on both. Of my limited sample of the year, I like 12 Years a Slave best.

Here’s a trailer.

A number of actors who appeared in previous award-winning films, starting with the star himself, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in Solomon Northrup here and was the Operative in Serenity.

Not as high up the list, but Sarah Paulson is the gruesome wife of plantation owner Epps here, and was also in Serenity as Dr Caron, who gets gruesomely killed by the Reavers.

Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, and Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret, return from last year’s Bradbury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, where they played the key protagonists, father and daughter. Both films of course are mostly set in Louisiana. Unlike last year, they don’t share any scenes together this time.

Going further down the list, Scoot McNairy is Brown, one of Solomon’s captors, here; last year, with less facial hair, he was Joe Stafford, one of the fugitive diplomats in Argo.

And finally Garret Dillahunt, the treacherous Armsby here, was deputy sheriff Wendell in No Country for Old Men, again with much less facial hair but with a similar hat.

Apart from the above, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt also play significant roles, Cumberbatch and Fassbender as bad guy slaveholders and Pitt as the good guy who eventually gets Solomon freed. This was also Lupita Nyong’o’s first significant role as Patsy.

After many many entries in which I have castigated Oscar winners for their racism, including as recently as last year’s winner, Argo, this is a film entirely about the African American experience of slavery, which goes a little way towards expiating the Academy’s past faults. Closely based on an autobiographical account, it is the story of a free African-American from New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and endures twelve years of horrible treatment on cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana before finally regaining his freedom by getting a message to friends back north. It is gripping stuff.

As usual, however, I’m going to start with the elements of the film that I did not like as much, before going on to its virtues. The thing I liked least about the film was unfortunately at its very core, and the film could not have been the same without it. The violence is graphic and disturbing. I had to fast-forward through the scene where Solomon is forced to flog Patsey (I had already read the book, so I knew what was coming; it’s 4 minutes and 46 seconds in a single take). It’s not possible to make an honest film about slavery without depicting grim, horrible and repeated violence, but it is not something I enjoy watching. Accounts from the set indicate that the actors were psychologically affected by it too.

My other (much less serious) case of side-eye is the casting of actors playing antebellum Americans. Benedict Cumberbatch is English. Michael Fassbender is Irish. Lupita Nyong’o’s family is from Kenya (the other side of Africa), though she also has Mexican citizenship and was educated in Massachusetts so perhaps it’s a less clear case (she still isn’t Southern, though). The star of the film, Chiwetel Ojiofor, is English and sounds totally London when not acting:

Maybe it’s not such a big deal, but I do think it is unfortunate that none of the lead Southern parts is played by a Southern actor. (And Chiwetel Ojiofor is playing a Northerner.)

Apart from that, the film has a good and important story to tell, and tells it very well. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, or its shameful endorsement by the forces of the state and the church. (Christianity does not come out well in this film.) There is little Hollywoodisation of the facts – the film has stuck pretty closely to the book it is based on (rare enough), and is probably a better film as a result (even rarer). Although Solomon is freed in the end because he was born a freeman, we are left in no doubt that the continuing enslavement of his fellow workers is an appalling injustice. It skips a little over the formalities of how he was freed, but we know what has happened.

I thought the cinematography and film editing were very good, and look forward to seeing Gravity which won the Oscars in those categories that year. And I don’t usually comment on this, because I am rather fashion-unconscious, but I thought the costuming was superb. I did scratch my head at first at how clean everyone’s clothes generally are, but goin back to the source material, I realised how important cleanliness is to people who have otherwise lost most of their dignity, and indeed how important it was for slave owners to put on a good show.

Unusually, the music is a mixture of diegetic and incidental. Solomon Northrup is a talented violinist, both free and enslaved. One of the most memorable scenes is the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” by the slaves picking cotton.

The acting is top-notch. I grumbled a bit about the casting of Ojiofor, Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Fassbender earlier. I have no grumbles about their performances, or about anyone else’s. The slaveholders are flawed human beings rather than caricatures. The slaves are individuals who have been placed in awful circumstances. It is of course a didactic story, but it’s at least as much a story about people.

I would have liked to place this higher in my rankings, but the violence really did squick me, so I’m putting it just over a third of the way down my list, in 26th place, just below Oliver! and above Unforgiven.

Next up in the list of Oscar winners is Birdman, but I’ll watch Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy first.

I also read the original book on which the film is based, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup but edited by David Wilson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

I have previously read a number of slavery narratives – Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the research of Rebecca Hall and the close observations of Fanny Kemble – and they are all interesting in different ways. Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, and Equiano born in Africa, so Northrup’s account is unusual in being that of a man born free in the USA but then enslaved. It’s also unusual in the relatively neutral presentation of the means and motivation of the slave owners – these are evil people, sure, but their evil is an inevitable consequence of the system.

I also found it really interesting in the precision of the geography where everything happened – I found myself googling the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, and Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Northrup is also very detailed and convincing about the precise techniques of employing slave labour for both cotton and sugar cane farming. And of course he is crystal clear about the brutality of the slavery system.

Not surprisingly, there have been Northrup denialists since 1853, just as there have been Anne Frank denialists since a century later. But the level of verifiable detail about named individuals and places is tremendously convincing. It’s also fairly short, and well-written (as is normal for any mid-nineteenth-century writer). You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Juicy and Delicious

Beasts of the Southern Wild won SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award for Best Script in 2013, beating The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games, John Carter and Looper. It was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, but beaten by Argo. IMDB users rate it 95th on one ranking and 174th on the other, by far the lowest for any of the films I have been watching in this sequence.

It is about a little girl living on an island off the Mississippi delta, whose world is ending. Her mother is absent, her father is dying, the sea levels are rising to swamp her home, and ancient aurochs thawed from the melting glaciers are on their way.

I loved it. The other films that I have seen from that year are Argo and The Avengers, as noted above, and The Hobbit part 1The Dark Knight RisesLes Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. I actually think I liked Beasts of the Southern Wild most of all of them. Well done, SFWA voters.

None of the actors had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula/Bradbury winners, or Doctor Who for that matter; few have them had acted before. Indeed, the father is played by Dwight Henry who ran the bakery across the road from the studio and was co-opted by the producers. They made a wise choice. They made an even wiser choice with Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest ever nominee for an acting Oscar, who is totally believable as Hushpuppy. I had seen her later performance as Annie, so was not completely surprised.

It’s a film with a lot to say about poverty, family, community, the environment and the end of the world. It’s beautifully filmed and the cast, few of whom had much experience, are very strong just being themselves. I’m not going to go on at great length – neither does the film, at only 93 minutes. You should just go and watch it if you haven’t already. I’m putting it tenth overall in my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, just below Galaxy Quest and above Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It’s based loosedly on a play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar who then co-wrote the screenplay with Benh Zeitlin. The third of the many short scenes, in its entirety, is:

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD, Y’ALL

Hushpuppy at school.

A bunch of scrappy kids who are bottom of the food chain.

MISS BATHSHEBA stands before a picture of an AUROCHS.

We hear the sound of ice cracking—a glacier coming loose and falling into the sea.

MISS BATHSHEBA

Welcome to Miss Bathsheba’s Finishing School!

Welcome to the End of the World.

A lemon hits the window. Then several more.

MISS BATHSHEBA

Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to me.

Lesson One: Aurochs. Long, long ago, when we all lived in caves, the world was swarming with aurochs. Aurochs were big and hungry and ate babies.

For an aurochs, the perfect breakfast was a sweet, juicy little cave baby. They would gobble cave babies down right in front of their cave parents. And the cavemen couldn’t do nothing about it, because they were too poor, too stupid, too small. To defy the aurochs would mean a long, painful death.

But even cavemen love their children, in their own, stupid, caveman way; and in their own, stupid, caveman way, they were going to do something about it. The cavemen took whatever weapons they could find—numchucks, or blowtorches, or just their teeth. They fell upon the aurochs, screaming, “Toro! Toro! Toro!”

Blood, and eyeballs, and intestines flew everywhere! And when the war was over, most of the cavemen lay dead. But all of the aurochs lay deader.

And now, two million years later, here y’all are. Proof that someone was taking care of you before they even knew you.

Because they loved you with their whole, huge, breaking, stupid little hearts, even way back then.

(The sound of ice cracking. Outside, grits fall from the sky. It’s kind of scary.)

MISS BATHSHEBA

Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to me.

The universe is coming unrendered.

Things are dying ain’t supposed to die.

The fabric of the universe is coming all undone.

Don’t be scairt. Miss Bathsheba’s gonna teach y’all how to live through it.

I think this would be unstageable. Flying lemons aren’t the half of it. Also it’s very different from the film – Hushpuppy is a boy, and he and his father live in Georgia and (I think) are coded as white. It’s been turned into a thing of wonder in the cinematic process – a rare example where the film is infinitely better than the material it is based on (cf. Casablanca, also based on an unperformed stage play). But if you are curious you can get it here.

Next up are 12 Years a Slave, which features some of the same cast, and Gravity.

Argo

Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and only two others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film editing; Life of Pi got four Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Les Miserables, but not Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hugo that year went to The Avengers, and SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award to Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other films that I have seen from that year are The Hobbit part 1, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. Also, I haven’t yet sat down and watched the whole film, but the Bollywood dance scene set in Dublin from Ek Tha Tiger is a classic.

Sorry about that. I’m just obsessed.

Anyway, back to Argo. IMDB users rate it 10th and 20th film of the year on the different rankings, which is not brilliant but not as bad as last year’s The Artist. Ahead of it on both rankings are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit 1, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man. I would also have put it middle of the pack, but some serious issues came up that bump it to a much lower position in my ranking.

Here’s a trailer.

Returning from previous Oscar winners (and one Hugo winner): first and foremost, Ben Affleck, the star and director here, was Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.

John Goodman, who is prosthetics expert John Chambers here (the man who invented Spock’s ears, received a special Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and also did Richard Harris’s chest for that scene in A Man Called Horse), was producer Al Zimmer in The Artist last year.

From a previous Hugo winner, Alan Arkin is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel here, and was paterfamilias Bill in Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. (Like many of us, he had more hair then.)

Finally, the Canadian ambassador is played by Victor Garber, who is genuinely Canadian, but I flagged him up previously for his role as the only identifiably Northern Irish character in an Oscar-winning film – Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

This is the fairly incredible story, Based On True Facts, of how the CIA with help from Canada exfiltrated six American diplomats from Tehran shortly after the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, by posing as a Canadian film crew looking for locations to make a film version of Roger Zelazny’s great novel Lord of Light.

There are lots of things to like here. But I was dismayed to discover from the memoir by Tony Mendez, the CIA guy behind it all, that the film is significantly more white and male than the real events on which it is based. One of the trapped diplomats, Cora Lijek (who prefers Cora Amburn-Lijek) is a Japanese-American in real life; here she is with the very non-Japanese Clea DuVall who portrays her in the film. (Not that the role is very demanding; the trapped diplomats are basically peril monkeys.)

The film has only one Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Ken Taylor, and his wife Pat, who is also Asian and at least is portrayed by Chinese-Australian actor Page Leong. But in real life, the chief immigration officer and deputy Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown, played a crucial role, along with his wife Zena who is from Guyana. Here she is hosting the fugitives in her house, including Cora Amburn-Lijek on the left.

Almost everyone involved in the story on the US government side was, of course, a white man. But in the book, Mendez is very clear that one memorable meeting – where he made a remark about abortion that is preserved in the screenplay – was chaired by “an undersecretary of state, a dignified woman who was very much in charge.” It took very little research to work out that this must have been Lucy W. Benson, the first woman appointed as US Undersecretary of State; she had left office before the diplomats were successfully extracted from Iran, but would have necessarily been involved with the initial approval process. In his book, Mendez refers respectfully several times to her interventions in the crucial meeting. But on screen, everyone in the room at that meeting is male.

According to Wikipedia, when asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic, Mendez (who was born in Nevada) noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father’s culture. He said, “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert.” Which is fine; but Affleck did not grow up in the desert either, and his character in the film tells us that he is from New York (Affleck is from Boston), rather than Nevada. A smaller point, but Mendez in real life has three children, a daughter and two sons. In the film he has only one child. Would you like to guess… Yep.

Tony Mendez (the real one) meets President Carter

So basically, Argo whitewashes the protagonist, whitewashes one of the two significant Asian women in the story, erases the most significant black woman in the story, erases the most politically important woman in the story, and even erases the protagonist’s daughter in favour of her brother. Affleck is entitled to make the film he wants to make, and to make the artistic choices that seem right for the story he wants to tell; I too have the right to point out that a lot of these choices go in one direction and not the other, and that the story he tells is much more about white guys vs brown guys than the True Facts that it is Based On. Whitewashing, and erasing women’s agency, are par for the course in Hollywood adaptations, but I can’t remember anything this extensive since All The King’s Men removed the entire African-American population of Louisiana.

It should also be noted that the Canadians dispute the centrality of the CIA to the story, arguing that a lot more of the heavy lifting was done in Ottawa and especially by their embassy in Tehran. And it’s also clear from Mendez’ published memoir that the last-minute hitches portrayed in the film – mission almost cancelled by cold feet in Washington, Iranian security deducing the plan and storming the air traffic control tower in a futile attempt to prevent the departure – are pretty fictional. I’m more forgiving of these changes; it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. But the Canadians do have a right to feel miffed. (As do the shades of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby.)

Apart from that, I quite enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed that the opening sequence described the historic relationship between Iran and the United States in detail, giving context to the hostility that led to the capture of the embassy and the imprisonment of the hostages. Those who were around at the time will remember the apparent impotence of the Carter administration, and the impact of the crisis on his prospects for re-election; for Middle East experts, of course, the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA had already set the pattern for US involvement in the region for seventy years. After that opening sequence, the narrative of the film is very one-sided, with frothing Iranians vs innocent Westerners, but credit where it’s due – this political context was crucially missing from the Vietnam films I’ve watched in this sequence, and from The Hurt Locker.

The filmography is particularly good, with hand-held cameras among the crowd storming the embassy bringing it into focus, and the Hollywood, Washington and Tehran locations convincingly depicted. The music is suitable and not oppressive – in the hands of another director we’d have had dramatic chords all the way through to tell us what to feel.

A relatively small element of the film, but I was very struck by the story’s very cynical take on Hollywood, especially after last year’s dewey-eyed The Artist, which also featured John Goodman. The parallel between the make-believe world of Movieland and the deception of espionage is well drawn, and also Arkin and Goodman play the Hollywood scenes for just the right amount of laughs to offset the serious subject matter of the rest of the story.

Chambers: [after hearing plan to exfiltrate the house guests] So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: No.
Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

The film was enjoyable, but the erasure is so shocking that I am bumping it way way down my list to eighth last, just above All The King’s Men and below Forrest Gump.

I also read the original Wired article by Joshua Bearman which inspired the film (paywalled) and Mendez’ memoir Argo. The third paragraph of the Wired article is:

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

It tells much the same story as film and book, with maybe a little more emphasis on the experience of the fugitive diplomats.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the grandly titled Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio is:

From the beginning, the Carter administration faced a number of challenges. When Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council threw their support behind the takeover, there was basically nobody for the U.S. government to negotiate with. Carter tried sending two emissaries, but Khomeini refused to allow them to even enter the country. With overt diplomacy off the table, Carter then turned to his military planners, who gave him a similarly bleak assessment. If the United States were to launch a retaliatory strike, the Iranians might execute the hostages. The chance of rescue also seemed remote. Geographically, Iran was extremely isolated and the U.S. embassy compound was located in the heart of the capital city. It appeared there would be no way to get the rescuers in and back out without the Iranians knowing.

Strictly speaking, the film was based on the relevant parts of Mendez’ earlier memoir, Master of Disguise, which were then extracted, expanded and updated as the book Argo to capitalise on the film. This updating was not complete. John Chambers’ identity is concealed behind a pseudonym in the book, even though the film uses his real name and anyway he had been dead since 2001, so it hardly mattered by 2012.

But it’s a satisfying read, if obviously partisan. The book is clear about the fact that the protagonist (played by a white actor in the film) is from a Hispanic background, even if he doesn’t choose to identify in that way; that one of the fugitive diplomats was Asian-American (also played by a white actor in the film); that one of the key people on the Canadian side was a black woman (erased entirely from the film); that the senior US official who authorised the plan was a woman (erased entirely from the film); that the protagonist had a stable marriage with two sons and a daughter (rather than the broken relationship and one son portrayed in the film) and that the last-minute hitches depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

The book also gives useful context about Mendez’ previous experience of disguise and exfiltration, including various capers in Iran itself, in other Middle Eastern countries and in south-east Asia. He is frank about the shortcomings of the USA’s governmental wiring diagram and comments approvingly that the Canadians with a lighter government structure were able to make things happen much more quickly than the Americans. And even without the fictional last-minute threats to the success of the mission, the truth is quite dramatic enough. You can get it here.

Next up: that year’s SFWA Bradbury winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Avengers

The Avengers won the 2013 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It had a pretty thumping victory at both stages.

It beat The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which I have seen, and The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games and Looper, which I haven’t. IMDB users rate it 3rd and 8th film of the year on the two rankings. In both cases it is behind The Dark Knight Rises, which I’m really surprised to see came as low as eleventh in the Hugo nomination rankings. (Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Ray Bradbury Award, came twelfth.) From the long list I also saw and enjoyed Brave and Wreck-It Ralph. I didn’t vote in that Hugo category that year.

Despite the star-studded cast, just one actor who’d been in previous Hugo winners and one who had been in an Oscar-winning film. Samuel L. Jackson presides here as Nick Fury; in 1993 he was the scientist Arnold in Jurassic Park, and also the voice of Frozone in The Incredibles in 2004.

And Gwyneth Paltrow gets one scene here as Pepper Potts, having won an Oscar as Viola in Shakespeare in Love a decade ago.

This is a film about a bunch of superheroes, the Avengers, getting together and biffing Loki, the god of Asgard, who wants to take over the world. (Or destroy it, I got a little lost.) I think it looks great but I’m not terribly invested in the Marvel mythology, so I’m putting it quite a long way down my rankings, in 40th place out of 53, below The Princess Bride but above The Incredibles.

I had my fourth COVID jab yesterday morning and am feeling under the weather today, so I’ll be brief. The performances are good, but I actually found the script a bit disappointing. My heart lifted when I saw Joss Whedon’s name on the credits; surely we can expect the same crackling humour that he often delivered for Buffy? But there’s not a lot of it.

Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother!
Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.
Thor: He’s adopted.

The fight scenes are well choreographed and the effects are superb.

But basically it’s a film that is intended to set up and develop the Marvel mythos, and I’m just not terribly interested in that even though it does the job well.

Next up will be that year’s Oscar winner, Argo, the closest that the late great Roger Zelazny ever got to a cinematic award. (If you don’t know, I’ll explain…)

The Artist

The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and four others, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo, which was also confusingly a Hugo finalist, but not The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life or War Horse.

The Hugo that year went to the first series of Game of Thrones (I was an early adopter of this idea) but I watched the film finalists as well: Hugo (as previously noted), Captain America: The First Avenger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and Source Code. The other four films that I remember seeing from that year are The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, The Iron Lady, Coriolanus, and half of the Iranian film A Separation.

IMDB users rate The Artist a lowly 43rd on one system and a dismal 125th on the other, compared against other 2011 films. We’ve had several others that were in the low 40’s on one ranking, but were much higher on the other – Cavalcade, Shakespeare in Love, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, I think. The 125th place ranking is by far the lowest we have had on either metric, and it’s not even like 2011 was a remarkably good year for films. I too was not hugely impressed by it.

Here’s a trailer.

I counted a couple of actors who had been in Hugo-winning films, and one who had been in a previous Oscar-winner (no crossovers with Doctor Who). The first is Malcolm McDowell, credited here as “the butler” (though his role is actually someone waiting for an audition) and the star of A Clockwork Orange 39 years ago.

Missy Pyle is the mistreated co-star Constance here, and eleven years ago was Lailari the Thermian in Galaxy Quest.

Finally, Beth Grant, Peppy’s unnamed maid here, was the equally unnamed Woman At The Farm House in Rain Man in 1988.

The Artist is entirely in black and white, and almost entirely “silent”, ie the sound track is mostly incidental music, becoming diegetic briefly about 31 minutes in and then for a longer spell at the very end. The last largely black and white film to win the Oscar was Schindler’s List (1993), and the last entirely black and white film to do so was The Apartment (1960, more than fifty years earlier). The only other silent film to win was the very first, Wings, way back in 1927.

The Artist is also generally cited as the only French film to have won an Oscar, but as a patriotic Belgian, I have to point out that the Belgian company uFilm were one of the co-producing companies, utilising a Belgian tax scheme, and the music was recorded in Flagey by the Brussels Philharmonic and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. French Wikipedia calls it “une comédie romantique muette et en noir et blanc franco-belgo-américain” (surely “-américaine”?).

It is about two actors in the early days of sound in the movies; Paul Valentin, who is on his way down because (as we discover at the end) he can’t get hired for the talkies because of his French accent and because he’s generally an asshole, and Peppy Miller, on her way up as she catches the Zeitgeist. He falls on hard times, and she rescues him and finds him some redemption. He also has a cute dog.

I was not very impressed. Before I get to the specifics of plot and cinematography, it’s the most shockingly racist Oscar winner for years. Everyone is white, even in the crowd scenes, apart from some African warriors who turn up on a film set and later in Paul’s delusions. This really is not representative for Hollywood in 1930, or even for France in 2011 when the film was made.

Most of the plot elements have been done before and better (most notably in Singin’ in the Rain and All About Eve). I found it derivative and pastiche rather than integrated. The good bits were not new and the new bits were not very good. Paul is such an unpleasant person at the beginning that it’s difficult to be very pleased by his redemption at the end.

Another point that really grated is that although a lot of attention was paid to make-up for Jean Dujardin as Paul, and for the main women actresses, it wasn’t really done for the extras and it looks like what it is, a lot of twenty-first century people pretending that they are in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two of the first five Oscar winners in the list below (The Broadway Melody and The Grand Hotel) are actually set in that time period because it was when they were made, and The Artist just sits wrong.

A further complaint is that Bérénice Bejo as Peppi is frankly too old for the part. As written, Peppy is clearly in her mid-20s at most; Bejo was 35 when the film was made. For the record, I have complained on this score in the past about men as well as women playing roles that were the wrong age (Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind; also Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves.) Bejo is a good performer in the role, but again it just sits wrong.

Despite not feeling attracted to the character, I did think that Dujardin gave a convincing portrayal of Paul.

And the dog is very cute.

Finally, as a patriotic Belgian, I did like the music.

I’m putting this a long way down my list of Oscar-winners, just outside the bottom ten, below No Country for Old Men, whose protagonist was more awful but more compelling, and above American Beauty which was much more skeevy.

Next up, from 2012: The Avengers (Hugo winner), Argo (Oscar winner), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Bradbury winner).

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

George VI’s last appearance; and The King’s Speech

I had planned to publish this post today anyway, after watching the film two weeks ago, but Thursday’s news makes it all the more appropriate. I’m not especially a royalist – I decided not to renew my British passport in 2017 – but there are some parts of the story that fascinate me on a human level. For instance, let me take you to the other end of the late Queen’s reign: here is the determinedly upbeat newsreel reporting the departure of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip for Kenya on 31 January 1952, the start of a world tour that was intended to last for months.

This was the last public appearance of King George VI. He looks, frankly, in awful shape. He had turned 56 the previous month, and lost a lung earlier in the previous year. There is dark apprehension on his face throughout the entire three minutes of the newsreel, culminating in his bleak gaze at the plane taking his daughter away from him at the end. His death less than a week later may have come as a shock to the wider world, but watching the film, and knowing what we do now, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that he himself was aware at some level that he would never see Elizabeth again.

My project of watching the Oscar-winning films in sequence takes us from the historical closure of George VI’s reign to the fictional treatment of its beginning, The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2010 and three others, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler), tying with Inception for four statuettes on the night. There were nine other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo finalists Inception and Toy Story 3, but none of the others, which were 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone. In fact, apart from the Hugo finalists, I don’t think I have seen any other films made in 2010.

IMDB users rank it 8th on one system but only 41st on the other. I must say that I love it, and, to cut to the chase, I am putting it right at the top of my personal ranking of Oscar winners, in third place, after The Sound of Music and Casablanca, but before An American in Paris. I like it much more than Inception, or any of the year’s other Hugo finalists.

There are several actors returning from previous Oscar winners. Colin Firth, the King here, was Kirstin Scott Thomas’s husband Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient.

The other male lead, Geoffrey Rush, playing Lionel Logue here, was Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.

Guy Pearce is George VI’s brother Edward VIII here, and last year was Thompson, they guy who gets blown up at the start of The Hurt Locker.

The royal parents, George V and Queen Mary, both appeared in Doctor Who episodes that same year, 2010. Claire Bloom played the mysterious character in The End of Time, David Tennant’s swan song shown on Christmas Day 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, who is identified by Russell T. Davies as the Doctor’s mother.

Michael Gambon, George V here, played the bad guy in Matt Smith’s first Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, shown at the end of 2010. He was also doing a lot of Dumbledoring around this time.

The only actor here to have managed both Doctor Who and another Oscar-winning film is Derek Jacobi, here Archbishop Lang, previously Senator Gracchus in Gladiator, and Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Doctor Who.

There’s a few more Doctor Who crossovers (Andrew Havill, David Bamber, Patrick Ryecart, possibly others) but let’s move on.

The film is about the relationship between Bertie, Duke of York, who had a difficult speech impediment, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an unqualified Australian. Bertie unexpectedly becomes King George VI when his brother abdicates after their father’s death, and overcomes his stammer to unite Britain and the Empire in the face of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. It is loosely (see below) based on historical events, with the flow of history interrupted by the channels of artistic licence.

I love most of this film, but I don’t love Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. In real life Churchill was not prime minister until after the film ends and was out of government for most of the period it covers; there is no way that he would have been at most of the events and conversations he is depicted as having here. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t make a movie about the (origins of the) Second World War without somewhat over-Churchilling it. But I felt that this went a bit far. On top of that, Spall’s depiction is pretty much caricature, compared even to Ian McNiece in that year’s Doctor Who, let alone John Lithgow more recently in The Crown.

My historian’s soul twitches at other truncations of history. Most obviously, the film starts in 1925 and ends in 1939, yet the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret do not age, and in general you feel that it is set over a period of weeks and months rather than years. As I discovered from reading the book, the relationship between the Duke/King and Logue was much smoother going in real life, with most of the tension between them invented for the screen. Of course, the makers of fictional drama do need to insert drama somewhere.

And Myrtle Logue knew about it all along, which means the single best and funniest scene of the film, when she comes home early to find the queen of England in her living room, is completely fictional. In reality the Logues started to attend palace events from 1928; by the time this scene is set, in 1937, she would have known the new queen for almost a decade.

Logue did attend and assist King George VI for his radio broadcasts during the war, so the climactic final speech at the start of the war on 3 September 1939, accompanied by the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with Logue conducting his articulation, is a bit closer to history. In fact the Director-General of the BBC was there too – those were the days when a DG knew how to fix a mike – but the music probably was not.

And that takes me to two of the things I particularly love about the film, the music and the cast. I am easily pleased by respectful and appropriate use of some of my favourite classical pieces; Beethoven’s Seventh has been mentioned, also his Emperor Concerto, Mozart’s Overture for the Marriage of Figaro and his Clarinet Concerto (though cutting off just before you get to the clarinet). Purists may sneer that these are just exactly the classical pieces that you would put into a film to easily please the crowds, but I am not ashamed of being pleased.

I’ve identified most of the key cast above, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and so on, and they are all brilliant (with one exception, which has been noted). But the one I haven’t mentioned so far is Helena Bonham-Carter, whose great-grandfather was the prime minister who appointed Winston Churchill to his first cabinet job. She’s one of my favourite actresses anyway (not quite at the level of Juliette Binoche, but who could be?) and I think this is one of her absolute top performances, as the Duchess of York / Queen Elizabeth. Helena Bonham-Carter is less than a year older than me, so must remember the real Queen Mother well – she lived to 2002 – and has done a fantastic job of catching her mannerisms and investing them with more depth and character, if I dare say it, that the original may have had. (Freya Wilson as the young Princess Elizabeth is delightful too.)

Incidentally, Helena Bonham-Carter and Juliette Binoche appear never to have acted in the same film. Spooky or what?

I’ve saved the thing I like most about the film until last, because it’s much more personal to me. There is a big gulf between the disabilities in my own immediate family and the speech impediment suffered by George VI. But I have become acquainted with speech therapists, and I love the fact that the film makers didn’t tell a story about a man being “cured”; they told the story of him learning to live with disability, and getting on with his life, and coping with it as an extra burden when circumstances called on him to do extraordinary things. Sure, he was immensely privileged, but the film makes it very clear that that is not sufficient. Yes, I’m sometimes a sucker for sentimentality.

I read the book on which the film was loosely based less than ten years ago, so I’m not going to reread it this time. Its title is The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which ever-so-slightly overpromises. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

It was only by chance — and another of the spontaneous decisions that shaped his life — that Logue, by then employed as an instructor in elocution at the Perth Technical School, had found himself aboard the Hobsons Bay. He and a doctor friend had planned to take their families away for a holiday together. The Logue family’s bags were packed and their car ready to go when the telephone rang: it was the doctor.

In 2015, I wrote:

A nice little book to go with the film, though this is not a novelisation but a biography of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue by his grandson (who never knew him) and a Sunday Times journalist. It’s a fascinating and intricate story of reverse migration – at a time when Australia was still absorbing newcomers from Britain, Logue and his family went in the opposite driection, to try and carve out a career in a new field for which he had no professional qualifications; and he succeeded, and what’s more, he made a lot of people’s lives better, one of whom unexpectedly became King of England.

The film, of course, telescoped the time line and injected dramatic elements to the story where they were needed. One of the most cheering things to find out was that Logue and the Duke of York were friends pretty much from the start; the plotline of the duke needing to be convinced that Logue’s therapy was worth trying was more or less invented for dramatic licence. It is, however, true that Logue was in attendance for the new king’s first radio speeches from Sandringham. It was also rather heartwarming to read their continued warm correspondence even after the king no longer needed Logue’s professional services.

I thought I spotted a Northern Ireland link, but it turned out to be bogus: in the mid-1920s the comptroller of the Duke of York’s household was one Captain Basil Brooke. Was this, I wondered, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? Wikipedia seemed to indicate a gap in his political career in the mid-1920s which was just the right fit; also his highest military rank, achieved in 1920, was Captain. However, further digging revealed that the comptroller was a navy man (and in fairness an exalted naval captain is a more likely candidate for uch a post than a humble army captain), who was Rear Admiral Sir Basil Brooke by 1928. Wikipedia lists two Royal Navy officers of that name and roughly the right age, one born in 1882 and one born in 1895, but neither of them seemed quite right – certainly neither was a Rear Admiral in 1928. It turns out that the royal official was yet another naval Basil Brooke, the first cousin once removed of the future Northern Ireland Prime Minister, born in 1876 and living until 1945. His wife Olave is the subject of a painting by Australian artist George W. Lambert, The Red Shawl.

Next up in this sequence is the Oscar-winning film The Artist; the Hugo and Bradbury awards both went to 2011 TV shows rather than films (Game of Thrones and The Doctor’s Wife) so I’ll be skipping them.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Ms Marvel

We watched the new Ms Marvel TV series over the last few weeks, and loved it. I very much enjoyed the first volume of the G. Willow Wilson comic and voted for it (along with the majority) for the 2015 Hugos, was less impressed by the second volume and not sure if I read later installments. The TV series takes a different angle. Here’s a trailer:

It’s still the origin story of a Pakistani-American girl with super powers growing up in New Jersey; but it links the life of an ordinary-ish American teenager of today, in conflict with the forces of the U.S. deep state, but also processing the trauma of Partition, seventy-five years ago this month; it will be pretty educational for the core audience of Disney+ viewers. The fifth episode in particular takes the story back to Karachi in 1947, conveying the chaos and horror of the time very economically.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdpw-nlE5ps

It’s also very attractive to see Islam portrayed in a matter of fact way, as a religion practiced by ordinary middle class Americans, with the local mosque having all the same internal politics manifest in any religious organisation, or indeed any human organisation at all. The mosque itself is played with quiet assurance by the Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, an enormous movie palace built in 1929 in consciously Islamic style.

The script is witty and wise, and various points are well made. And I get a little patriotic glow from the fact that the directors are Belgian. I don’t think I was familiar with any of the cast before, but they are all excellent, and the whole thing critically depends on Iman Vellani, here in her first significant acting job, in the title role. It’s way more interesting than, say, Harry Potter.

Anyway, strongly recommended (in case that was not clear).

Inception

Inception won the 2011 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, and also SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award for that year. Hugo voters gave it a thumping win at both stages of the ballot.

IMDB users rank it the top film of the year on both scales. It beat How To Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for both Hugo and Bradbury; the other Hugo finalist was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and the other Bradbury finalist was my favourite Doctor Who episode of that year, Vincent and the Doctor. I voted for it myself for the Hugo.

A few Oscar and Doctor Who crossovers here. At the top is Leonardo di Caprio, here the protagonist Cobb, previously Billy in The Departed and before that Jack in Titanic.

Tom Berenger, Browning here, was a sergeant in Platoon (my least favourite Oscar winner).

And Earl Cameron, credited here as “elderly bald man” though he clearly is not bald, was the astronaut Glyn Williams in The Tenth Planet, William Hartnell’s last story as the lead actor of Doctor Who in 1966, 54 years before Inception.

Slightly to my surprise, neither Michael Caine nor Pete Postlethwaite (who died soon after the film was released) had previously been in Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winning films.

Back in 2011, I wrote:

In forty years’ time, when my grandchildren (or yours) ask me how I voted in this year’s Hugos, I think this is the only defensible choice. Admittedly I found it rather hard to follow, due to being in pain and on various drugs while watching it in several installments, but that was true when I watched all the others as well, so in fact not a great excuse. It looks and sounds utterly fantastic, and is clearly paying homage to Philip K. Dick while bringing in various other sexual and social paranoias, in the ultimate example of someone’s personal relationships interfering with their career. I wasn’t totally sure about [Elliot] Page, but maybe my appreciation would have been greater under normal circumstances. In any case, no work of art is perfect, and I can happily give this my top vote.

Again, unfortunately, I watched the film while suffering from a mild tummy upset so again my concentration was not all that it should have been. But I felt that a lot of balls were juggled with consummate skill here – the layers of dreams, the gradual realisation of what is really true and what isn’t, the capitalist struggle for resources taken into the realm of the subconscious. I also liked Elliot Page’s performance more this time around. I’m putting it in 12th place in my rankings, just below Contact and ahead of Superman.

That year’s Oscar winner was The King’s Speech, which I will turn to next.

Enola Holmes and the aristocratic appellation

Just a brief note on the film which we watched a week ago. Millie Bobby Brown, who we already knew as Eleven in Stranger Things, is great as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ smarter younger sister Enola, as is Helena Bonham-Carter as their mother. It’s a lot of fun.

BUT. The chap at the centre of the mystery (such as it is) is referred to as Viscount Tewkesbury, although he also has the title Marquess of Basilwether. Normally, someone who holds both a marquessate and an earldom is referred to by the former rather than the latter. (Except if the two titles are from different jurisdictions, in which case they will be referred to by the earldom title when they are in the appropriate place, but Tewkesbury is in England and it does not sound like Basilwether is anywhere outside England.)

A long but interesting Facebook discussion prompted me to do more research, discovering that only three women in England have ever held a marquessate in their own right. The first was Anne Boleyn, who was not Marchioness but Lady Marquess of Pembroke; the second was George I’s lover Melusine von der Schulenburg, created Marchioness of Dungannon but known as the Duchess of Kendal as it’s the higher title; and the third was the curious case of Jemima Campbell, Marchioness Grey, whose title was created for her grandfather in 1740, but he died almost immediately after, so she inherited it at the age of 16 and held it for the remaining 57 years of her life.

The other massive plot hole is that we are supposed to believe that Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s vote is critical to pass legislation in the house of Lords. In fact, hereditary peers could not take their seats at the time the film is set until the age of 21, and though we are not told Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s age, the actor is only 17. (Quite apart from the fact that it’s never been possible to whip the House of Lords as tightly as that.)

As I said, apart from that, I really enjoyed it, and Millie Bobby Brown, who produced it as well as starring at the age of 16, is clearly someone to watch.

District 9

District 9 won the Ray Bradbury Award from SFWA (effectively the Nebula for Dramatic Presentation) the first year after it was repurposed, beating Avatar, Coraline, Moon, Star Trek and Up. As previously noted, it actually topped the nominations poll for the Hugo and came close to winning. In a surprising divergence, it ranks 5th on one IMDB rating but only 32nd on the other.

None of the cast had been in previous Hugo, Nebula or Oscar-winning films; they are all South African, and this is the first of any of those films set in that country.

This was as good as people had assured me it would be. It is set in Johannesburg in a slightly different timeline to ours, where several years ago, a spaceship full of aliens arrived in the sky over the city and millions of them came down to the earth’s surface; they are all accommodated in appalling squalor in a camp near the city, and the authorities (mostly white South Africans) decide to forcibly move them to another more distant camp, which will be equally squalid and violent but less visible to the world.

To start with what I didn’t like so much, there are not all that many black characters, though it has to be said that almost all the human characters are pretty evil and most of them are white, which tells its own story. The plot is centred on one white man who finds himself transforming into an alien, and undergoes a character shift as a result. There are so many interesting roots here – the body horror is reminiscent of The Ark in Space, the situation with the aliens from Ian McDonald’s Sacrifice of Fools, the aliens themselves are very well realised.

Also, the action sequences, well done as they are, go on a bit too long, to the point that you start to notice that there is not a lot of actual plot.

But it’s still pretty good. The standout performance is Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe, set up as the stooge for the alien clearing operation. This was his first major film appearance; apparently he improvised most of his lines. He is tremendously watchable and human, even while he becomes more physically alien – and of course that is part of the message.

Unusually, this is based on a short film rather than a written work or a play. Alive in Joburg, from 2006, has a very similar scenario, but is only six minutes long, and lacks the Peter Jackson production values.

This is the 51st Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury-winning film that I have watched in this sequence. I have been trying to do overall summaries when I reach every tenth film, but miscounted this time. My definitive and unassailable ranking of them all is as follows (the eleven most recent in red):

51) The Canterville Ghost (Retro Short, 1945)
50) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
49) Curse of the Cat People (Retro Short, 1945)
48) The Sixth Sense (Nebula, 1999)
47) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
46) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
45) A Boy and His Dog (1976)
44) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
43) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
42) Slaughterhouse-Five (1973)
41) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
40) Sleeper (Hugo/Nebula 1974)
39) The Incredibles (Hugo 2004)
38) The Princess Bride (1987)
37) 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
36) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1990)
35) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
34) Return of the Jedi (1982)
33) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
32) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
31) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
30) WALL-E (2009)

29) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
28) Howl’s Moving Castle (Nebula 2006)
27) Moon (2010)
26) Young Frankenstein (Hugo/Nebula 1975)
25) Soylent Green (Nebula 1973)
24) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
23) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
22) District 9 (Bradbury 2010)
21) Serenity (Hugo/Nebula 2005)
20) Stardust (2008)

19) The Truman Show (1998)
18) Aliens (1986)
17) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
16) Dr Strangelove (1965)
15) Jurassic Park (1993)
14) Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)
13) A Clockwork Orange (1972)
12) Superman (1978)
11) Contact (1997)
10) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Hugo/Nebula 2001)
9) Galaxy Quest (Hugo/Nebula 2000)
8) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
7) Blade Runner (1983)
6) Back to the Future (1985)
5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
3) Star Wars (Hugo/Nebula 1978/77)
2) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
1) Alien (1979)

Next: Inception.

Moon (2009 film)

Moon won the 2010 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating District 9 (which won the Bradbury/Nebula), Up, Star Trek and Avatar. It was actually only third in terms of nominations, and won the award by only 15 votes on the final count, its lead over District 9 having steadily narrowed. I have not been keeping track, but I think that is one of the closest results in this category.

IMDB users rate it 17th and beneath the other four nominees on one system, and 26th and behind all but District 9 on the other, which is surprisingly low for a winner. I have not yet seen District 9, but I must say that while I enjoyed Moon, I would probably have voted for Star Trek myself. It looks like a strong field – I’d have certainly nominated Watchmen and Children of Earth too. (The End of Time would have been a better fit for the following year.)

There’s one returnee from a previous Hugo winner: Sam Rockwell, playing the protagonist Sam Bell in all his versions, was Fleegman the publicist in Galaxy Quest ten years earlier.

Kevin Spacey, the protagonist of American Beauty, is the voice of the computer GERTY, but we don’t see him so no pics.

Sam, our hero, whose surname ends with -ell and is played by an actor whose first name is Sam and whose surname ends with -ell, is mining Helium-3 on the far side of the Moon. He encounters his double and realises that they are just the latest in a series of clones of the real Sam, who are activated in sequence by the evil Lunar Industries and then casually disposed of. His wife, who he thinks he is speaking to on Earth, turns out to have died some time ago; his little daughter is now a teenager.

It’s not so different in concept from The Sixth Sense, but I liked it a whole lot more. It’s a modest plot, with the core concept of discovering that your identity is not what you thought it was, and the desperation of trying to work out what is going on when all available facts seem unreliable. There are some silly bits as well – why mine Helium-3 on the far side? Is animating clones by remote control really less expensive and more reliable than just training and sending new astronauts? But I think it succeeds by not trying too hard.

The effects are convincing – actually I was reading the novelisation of Moon Zero Two while watching this, which reminded me that it’s part of a long tradition. The music is great as well. So I’m putting it exactly half way down my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, in 25th place out of 49, below Young Frankenstein and above Howl’s Moving Castle, which is still a pretty good ranking.

Next up: District 9.

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009 and five others, Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The other nominees for Best Picture were Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air. Amazingly enough, I have seen none of them as yet (this was not a year when I watched the Hugo finalists). The Hugo that year went to Moon, and the Ray Bradbury Award (replacing the Nebula) to District 9.

kinopoisk.ru

IMDB lists it as a 2008 film, 13th on one ranking and 19th on the other. However Oscar procedures took it as a 2009 film. The other 2009 films that I have seen (so far) are Watchmen, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Coraline, and I think that’s it.

Here’s a trailer.

I found a couple of returnees from previous Oscar winners, the most visible being Ralph Fiennes as the short-lived British officer. He previously had the title role in The English Patient, and played the lead Nazi in Schindler’s List.

Anthony Mackie, now of course more famous as Falcon, is Sanborn here and was Shawrelle in Million Dollar Baby.

And we have a Doctor Who crossover: Sam Spruell is Contractor Charlie here, and was Swarm in last year’s Flux season of Who.

This is yet another war film. I knew nothing about it going in, but my heart sank as I realised that it was about American soldiers in Iraq; Platoon is my least favourite Oscar winner of them all, and I braced myself for another two hours and eleven minutes of sympathy for soldiers in an occupying army, unleavened by much consideration for the people they were shooting at. In fact it was not quite as bad.

As usual, I’ll start with the things I did not like about the film. As with Platoon, the presence of American soldiers in hostile territory is presented as an unfortunate accident of circumstances which puts our protagonists in danger, rather than the deliberate result of US government policy. (That’s as far as the script goes; but see below for a caveat.)

The US Army is shown as multi-ethnic, with Mackie’s Sanborn the second lead. But apart from the football-loving, DVD-selling kid, the only perspective that we get from actual Iraqis is that they are terrified of the Americans, or trying to kill them, or both. In reality, Iraq is a real country, with real people in it, but you would not know it from The Hurt Locker.

Given that it’s a film about bomb disposal, there is a lot of gore, including a particularly unpleasant scene with a booby-trapped corpse which may have been dramatically necessary but which I found very unpleasant to watch. Lots of shooting and a couple of beatings.

As with many (but not all) war films, it is very male. There is an Iraqi woman who is terrified of the Americans and says so loudly. The protagonist’s wife, played by Evangeline Lilly who deserves much better, appears in the last few scenes as someone for him to talk to. She has a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds in the movie.

I’m sufficiently familiar with the methods of military bomb disposal to wince at the procedural inaccuracies as portrayed on screen. Sure, our hero is a maverick, but there are a number of basic safety things that we learned as kids in Belfast and were drummed into me again in Bosnia that you just don’t do, even as an expert. This spoiled some of the most suspenseful scenes for me.

What I did like, rather to my surprise, was the fact that the protagonist, Sergeant First Class William James as played by Jeremy Renner, is a real asshole. I think most of us have worked at some time or another with people like him – determined to be the hero, and/or the clown, and/or the rule-breaker. This transposition of a very familiar workplace dynamic into the horrors of a combat zone actually did a lot to humanise the story, more so perhaps than any of the other war movies that I have seen in this sequence. James is not a naïve young man sucked into a conflict that he cannot comprehend; he is a hardened and unpleasant veteran, who is transformed by the suffering that he witnesses, and sometimes causes.

I also really appreciated the filmography, and I am a little surprised that few other reviewers seem to have picked up on this. The whole thing was filmed on location in Jordan, literally next door to Iraq, and the urban scenes in particular conveyed what the script did not: a society devastated by conflict caused by outsiders, with a traumatised population doing their best to pick up the pieces. The desert scene with the British soldiers was a bit gratuitously Lawrence of Arabia, but well done for all that. The effects were also impressive, when I could bear to look at them.

So I’m putting it just below the three-quarter mark in my ranking of Oscar winners, in 63rd place out of 82, just below Ordinary People and just above The Departed.

The next Oscar winner is The King’s Speech, but before that I will look at District 9, Moon and Inception.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Slumdog Millionaire; and Q&A, by Vikas Swarup

Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008 and seven others, Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing. The other films up for Best Picture were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader, none of which I have seen. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to WALL-E.

Slumdog Millionaire is 4th on one IMDB ranking but only 26th on the other, with The Dark Knight, WALL-E and Iron Man ahead of it on both lists. Along with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, those were the Hugo nominees and I saw them all. Weirdly enough I watched Mamma Mia! for the first time also last weekend; apart from the, the only other 2008 film I have seen is The Duchess, based on half a chapter of Amanda Foreman’s book.

For the second time in a row (after No Country for Old Men), I found no credited actors in common with other Oscar-winning films, Hugo or Nebula winners, or Doctor Who; perhaps a bit less surprising in this case, as almost all of the cast are from India and have made their careers there, and the kids in the flashback scenes have in general not become actors now that they have grown up.

It’s a film about a boy from the slums who wins the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. As the film starts, he is arrested just before the final question is asked on suspicion of cheating, and explains his knowledge to a sceptical policeman, once they have finished torturing him, providing a series of flashbacks which tell the story of his life.

So, to start with the bits I didn’t like, as usual. I did not like the torture scenes. What can I say. I am squeamish. It’s weirdly out of tone with the rest of the film. They’re in the book as well, but there is a lot more violence in the original novel, so it’s less dissonant, and also you don’t have to watch it on paper.

It’s probably the least white film to have won an Oscar so far in my watching, but it’s very male. There is one female lead character, Latika, played as an adult by Freida Pinto. Again, the book is better on this – it memorably features a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It reduces Indian society to 1) the struggle of the poor and 2) the dynamic between the protagonist’s Muslim origins versus the forces of nationalism and/or the state, as specifically experienced in Mumbai. That’s an important story of course, but once again the book has a lot more diversity – it is set in New Delhi and Agra as well as Mumbai, and we encounter Indian Christianity, Sikhs, and quite a lot of stupid white people.

And I must say I twitched when the credits flashed up and there was only one Indian name (Loveleen Tandan) among a host of Brits in the senior production team. Somehow this mattered less for Gandhi, which was as much as anything about the relationship between India and the outside world, especially Britain. Slumdog Millionaire purports to be an Indian story about Indian people, but it isn’t.

Having said all that, I did generally enjoy the film. To be grim about it, the interrogation of poverty and social division is a crucial driver of the narrative, and is firm and not subtle. The story starts with the protagonist’s mother being killed in sectarian riots, and life in the slums is vividly depicted.

To be more positive, Dev Patel is great as Jamal, and all of the cast basically glow. I liked the comfortable bilingualism of the script (thanks to Loveleen Tandan apparently). I love quiz shows. I also love the interweaving of narratives where the past unexpectedly informs the present. It’s nice that a crucial plot point depends on The Three Musketeers, a novel which I like more than it really deserves. It looks fantastic and colourful in all the right ways. There is a happy ending. And the music is good.

I’m putting it just above the halfway point in my ranking of Oscar-winners, below It Happened One Night and above Gigi.

Next on my Oscar list is The Hurt Locker, which I have managed to maintain utter ignorance of since it came out (also in 2007, but it won a 2008 Oscar).

As noted above, I read the original book, Q&A, by Vikas Swarup. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I don’t read the Maharashtra Times. In fact, I don’t read any newspaper. But I occasionally pilfer a copy from Mr Barve’s rubbish bin. It is useful for stoking the fire in the kitchen, and sometimes, when I have nothing else to do, I flip through its pages as a time pass before they are reduced to ash.

Some repetition below because I’ll be posting this section of the blog post independently to Goodreads and LibraryThing, in due course.

The central concept is the same as the film: a boy from the slums who wins a quiz show because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. The book is more violent. It has more sex and more female characters – as noted above, it has a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It’s also a broader look at India and its interactions with the outside world. The protagonist, Ram Mohammed Thomas, can pass as Muslim or Hindu, or indeed Christian; there’s a memorable chapter where he works for an Australian diplomat (the author is himself an Indian diplomat) and another where he makes a living taking tourists around the Taj Mahal. He also looks at the darker side of Bollywood, and of war heroes.

And at the very end there are a couple of pleasing plot twists, which I might have found rather contrived if the rest of the book had not put me in a generally good mood. You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

WALL-E

WALL-E won both the 2009 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, and the last ever Nebula Award for Best Script (it’s now the Ray Bradbury Award). I watched it soon after it came out (on DVD, I think). In both cases it beat The Dark Knight, which actually got my first preference for the Hugo; the other Nebula contender was a TV episode, and the other Hugo contenders were Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man and an audio anthology, METAtropolis. WALL-E was comfortably ahead of the field at nominations stage, and blew away the opposition in the final ballot.

I must say that re-watching WALL-E, I am a bit ashamed that my cynical curmudgeonly heart did not incline me to go with the majority in 2009. Having said that, IMDB users put The Dark Knight ahead of it on both rankings of 2008 films, WALL-E ending up second on one list and 21st on the other (ahead of Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire in both cases), so my 2009 vote was aligned with today’s critical consensus.

It’s not a flawless film. To have a cute robot with droopy sad eyes, and its even cuter insect buddy, is of course hugely manipulative.

I also noticed that although the humans are somewhat diverse, only the white ones get to speak; and there is a lot of fat-shaming going on.

But the depiction of a devastated, polluted and abandoned Earth is tremendous. It’s an old sf trope, of course, and I was particularly reminded of Brian Aldiss’s “Who Can Replace a Man?

And the humour of WALL-E as fish out of water, trying to understand the ways of humanity and also trying to share his enthusiasms with his new friend once EVE appears, is very nicely done; especially as his hobby is humanity on Earth – and now we’re getting into the territory of another favourite story of mine, Roger Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry”.

It’s also always good to show humans as we might appear to others, even if the others are cute anthropomorphic robots…

And yet, on reflection I think I have argued myself around to my first viewpoint, that this is a cute and sweet and funny film, with moments of greatness, but I think I stand by my 2009 vote.

I’m going to take the next two Oscar Winners before I get to the following year’s Hug and Bradbury films, which are respectively Moon and District 9.

Stardust: film and novel

Stardust won the 2008 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating the first season of Heroes, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Enchanted and The Golden Compass. It was way ahead at nominations stage and while it had a closer run on the final ballot, it was ahead on every count. I have seen none of the other finalists; from the long list, I have seen the Zemeckis Beowulf and Vadim Jean’s Hogfather, and would confidently put Stardust way above both.

It rates 6th on one IMDB ranking but only 28th on the other. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Transformers are both ranked ahead of it by IMDB users but were way down the Hugo ballot. No Country for Old Men won that year’s Oscar.

Lots and lots of crossovers with Doctor Who and with previous Oscar and Hugo winners. The one actor who ticks all three boxes is however invisible here: Ian McKellen is the narrator, having previously been Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films; he would go on to be the voice of the Great Intelligence in the 2012 Eleventh Doctor story, The Snowmen.

Here after appearing in two Oscar winners is Peter O’Toole as the dying King, having previously been the tutor of The Last Emperor in 1987 and Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.

The bishop is played by Struan Rodger, who had been the voice of the Face of Boe in the Tenth Doctor stories Gridlock (2006) and New Earth (2007), went on to be the voice of Kasaavin in the Thirteenth Doctor story Spyfall (2020) and appeared on screen as Ashildr’s butler Clayton in the Twelfth Doctor story The Woman Who Lived (2015); but many years before was also Sandy McGrath in Chariots of Fire.

Rupert Everett, who plays Secundus, the first prince to be bumped off, was Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love.

David Walliams, who is Quintus, another dead prince, here, played the cringing alien Gibbis in the Eleventh Doctor story The God Complex.

Mark Williams is the man-who-is-really-a-goat here, was in both Shakespeare in Love as Nol and in several Eleventh Doctor stories as Rory’s father.

Spencer Wilding, one of the pirates, has played several roles in Doctor Who but is heavily masked in all of them.

Last but definitely not least, Robert de Niro is Captain Shakespeare here; we have previously seen him in two other Oscar winners, Mike in The Deer Hunter and the young Don in The Godfather II.

For once, I had actually seen this in the cinema when it first came out. It is great fun, even if all of the speaking characters are white and almost all of them are slim and beautiful. Claire Danes and Michelle Pfeiffer do convincing English accents. The cinematography is lovely, the acting spot-on, and the script sufficiently funny that we almost accept the skeeviness of much of the plot – that our hero forcibly abducts our heroine in order to trade her, as property, to buy his way into a relationship with the woman he thinks he wants; and how come Una can’t rule Stormhold in her own right as the only surviving child of the old King?

Robert de Niro completely steals the show as the cross-dressing pirate airship captain, making us wonder why we care about these young folks, just about managing to rise above the stereotypes. I really enjoyed watching it again.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the original novel is:

The eighty-first Lord of Stormhold lay dying in his chamber, which was carved from the highest peak like a hole in a rotten tooth. There is still death in the lands beyond the fields we know.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

A very enjoyable fairy tale by Gaiman. As ever I find myself spotting similarities with Sandman (in this case, the supernatural siblings, and the half-human heir), but I felt he had rung the changes here rather effectively, and the story combines lovely incidental detail with a good sound (if traditional) plot. Great fun.

I had forgotten just how different it is from the film. It’s darker and sexier, as you would expect from Gaiman; the fallen star breaks her leg as she lands at the start of the story, and is disabled for the rest of the book; there are many more diversionary adventures and no big fight scenes; the pirates play a much smaller role; and of course it feels more English than you get from the Scottish and Icelandic filming. I still enjoyed it though. You can get it here.

Next up is WALL-E, followed by Slumdog Millionaire.

Belfast, by Kenneth Branagh

A week ago (wow, it’s been such a long week) the British Mission to the EU and the Northern Irish representative office jointly put on a showing of the Kenneth Branagh film Belfast at the Bozar in central Brussels.

It was just lovely to actually have a physical reception, after two years when it was very difficult. The British Ambassador made a wee speech:

Also the Northern Ireland deputy representative made a wee speech; and my friend Paul took photos, in the first of which my back is visible at the left.

Probably the majority of us in the crowd were Norn Iron exiles in Brussels; a few arty people had come over specially for the occasion, but basically this was UKMis showing that it was a good social actor; and succeeding.

Here’s the official trailer.

So, what did I think of the film?

I was born in 1967, so I was about 2 at the point that the events of the film unfold. (Though apparently “helicopter” – or “ally-agga” – was one of my first words, as we saw them zoom west over the garden.) A lot of it doesn’t really speak true to the Belfast experience. Nobody ever wandered down the streets with flaming torches. There were no Indian corner shops, and no ethnic minority teachers. There was no wee Catholic girl in the Protestant school. The bus to the airport didn’t exactly stop in side streets to pick people up. The houses were (and are) much smaller. The accents are much stronger in real life.

At the same time, one can forgive a lot of this for the sake of Art. Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds and Judy Dench are all actors who I knew anyway; I have seen one episode of Outlander starring Caitriona Balfe and now I have a strange impulse to see more. And young Jude Hill, from my ancestral part of the world, is glorious as the main character. The (Oscar-winning) script really crackles.

Pa: It’s all bloody religion. That’s the problem.
Buddy: Then why are you sending us to church?
Pa: Because your granny would kill me if I didn’t.

Pop: [to Buddy] Women are very mysterious.
Granny: And women can smash your face in too, mister.
Pop: Your granny’s become less mysterious over the years.

(After the supermarket has been looted)
Ma: Why did you take that washing powder?
Buddy: It’s biological!

Having said that, there’s no real interrogation of why the Troubles started in the first place. I think it would have been helpful for the audience to know that decades of injustice and discrimination do eventually bring the chickens home to roost. The impression given is that violence erupted purely out of sectarianism and bigotry at local level, which is far from the whole truth.

Having said that, I think almost all of us in Bozar related to the central dilemma of Buddy’s parents in the film; will you stay or will you go? And from the mere fact that we were in Brussels, we were all exiles, whether permanently or temporarily; and it was easy to relate to the problem of leaving a city that you love, and yet where you can’t live, and risking everything on a foreign venture. It works for a lot of people; it worked for Kenneth Branagh’s family and mine; it doesn’t work for everyone, and before you do it you don’t know what category you’ll end up in.

So yeah. I liked it, warts and all.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating four other films which I have not seen, though in each case I have read the book on which they were based (Children of Men, The Prestige, V for Vendetta and A Scanner Darkly). It was in fact narrowly behind The Prestige at the nominations round, but had a strong lead on the final ballot (in which The Prestige came third behind Children of Men).

Pan’s Labyrinth is ranked 5th and 6th of that year’s films by IMDB users, with The Prestige, The Departed and 300 ahead of it on both rankings.

Pan's Labyrinth

None of the actors have appeared in other Hugo-winning, Oscar-winning or Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who. Seriously impressed, however, by Doug Jones as Fauno, the main monster; we know him as Baru from Star Trek: Discovery. Apparently he learned Spanish specially for this film (though in fact his voice is dubbed).

I’ve seen two other del Toro films – Hellboy II and The Shape of Water – and liked Pan’s Labyrinth almost as much as The Shape of Water, which is to say, quite a lot. It’s in Spanish, making it the second film in a language other than English to win the Hugo (the first being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The setting is the early years of the Franco regime, shortly after the Civil War. The protagonist, Ofelia, played superbly by 11-year-old Ivana Bauero, crosses back and forth between the otherworldly Labyrinth dominated by Doug Jones’ Fauno, and our world where her Falangist stepfather is hunting down Communists in the woods and her pregnant mother is slowly dying.

I thought it was superbly done. The CGI and other effects of the Labyrinth are totally convincing; the humans of 1940s Spain are more monstrous than the monsters; Ofelia’s own heroic journey is sympathetically depicted. I’ll reserve judgement until I have seen The Prestige, but I felt that the Hugo voters that year knew what they were doing.