I hate you, butler

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I feel I ought to do the Oscar movies. I haven’t seen all of the big hitters yet, but I’m well on the way; pretty much, one Llewyn Davis short of a full house. First up: Northup. Steve McQueen’s third film, 12 Years A Slave, seemed poised to sweep all boards this season, having picked up a number of accolades at various prizegivings decided by circles, guilds and associations (for instance, from where I’m sitting, it seems to have beaten every other film to every award at the Florida Film Critics Circle in December, and you can replace “Florida” with “Iowa” or “Las Vegas” and get the same comprehensive result). And then the Golden Globes were distributed two weeks ago and 12 Years squeaked only one award out of seven nominations. True, it was for best motion picture (drama) and meant that McQueen and crew got to fill the stage as the TV credits rolled, but I can’t have been alone in expecting a clean sweep.

Having seen 12 Years just days before, I have to say I was glad that the Globes were so evenly distributed among the big players: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf Of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Mandela and even the criminally overlooked All Is Lost, which picked up best score. In any year, I cross my fingers for a mixed bag of winners. I don’t like it when one film wins everything, whatever that film may be. I like surprises. I like upsets. I dislike sure things.

There’s no doubting the quality and ambition of 12 Years, but if it wins everything at the Oscars (and the Golden Globes at least hint that this might not be the case), my fear would be that it’s not the film but the abolition of slavery that’s being voted for.

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As you may know or remember, Hunger, McQueen’s debut, was my film of the year in 2008. I found much to applaud in his follow-up, Shame. And I take my hat off to him for moving so much further into conventional narrative cinema for 12 Years. As a black, London-born Briton of Grenadian blood who grew up at a time of great racial tension in the 70s and 80s, it’s not hard to see why it’s a personal film for him, even though it is a story about southern American slavery in the 1840s and 50s. And, like his previous work, it’s beautifully, artistically framed and confidently and movingly staged. It is a work of great power and adds another fine performance to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s CV. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And yet … it has unequivocal moral certainty on its side, and as such seems a slam-dunk with a modern, liberal audience, especially a white, liberal audience, and especially a white American liberal audience. I’m not saying it was an easy option – its depictions of unbearable, sadistic cruelty of an institutional, almost industrial kind are not for eating your dinner off a plate in front of a TV to – but it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the experience wishing it had been less fair on the white plantation owners. Like the white apartheid South Africans in Mandela – another film whose morality comes in black and white – it wouldn’t be out of place to boo the screen at them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with Roots on TV in the 70s. Regardless of the veracity of Alex Haley’s tale, its compelling narrative which took us from Africa to America, told a major historical truth. I was 12; I learned a lot. This is not to say I don’t need another fictionalised drama to tell me the same thing. But 12 Years A Slave tells the story of an educated, cultured freeman who is kidnapped and sold as a slave, which I felt we were supposed to be more indignant about than an African snatched from his homeland and shipped over. It veered towards those films set in Africa which always have a white protagonist so that, subliminally, white audiences will have someone to root for. Was Solomon Northup’s ordeal worse than the other slaves’ because he could play the violin, had visited Canada and used to wear a nice suit? The fact that the title reassured us throughout that after 12 years he would be free again took some of the sting out of it, for me.

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What, then, of American Hustle? I have always enjoyed the work of David O’Russell and can claim to have been in quite near the ground floor, having eyed his talent in Flirting With Disaster in 1996, his second feature. I’ll never hold him as dear as I do his contemporaries Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, but Silver Linings Playbook was entertaining, and so is American Hustle. Is it an Oscar movie? That’s my question. Playing the 70s for cheap laughs – it opens with Christian Bale painstakingly glueing down his preposterous combover – is a fairly tired old sport now. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Boogie Nights on that particular playing field. But in fictionalising a true story of private-sector confidence tricksters and an FBI sting, Hustle does boast a bit of content, a bit of story, to go with its hairstyles.

It’s hard to fault the sporting work by the principal cast: Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (all logged with the Academy) and Jeremy Renner. You will enjoy seeing Louis CK in a meaty supporting part, too, plus an uncredited Robert De Niro atoning somewhat for his facile schtick parts, and Boardwalk Empire fans will be as chuffed to see Shea Whigham in a wig as they will be to see him in a boat captain’s whites in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The screenplay by O’Russell and Eric Warren Singer smart-mouths through some pretty complex grifting and triple-crossing, but at the end of the day, it’s a caper movie. So was The Sting, I know, and that was Oscar-approved, but I’m just a little bit niggled by the blanket adoration Hustle is getting from juries. Is life so bad in 2013-14 that we can only bear to watch films set in other eras, whether ones we remember or not?

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The Wolf Of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s first all-out comedy. (The King Of Comedy was about comedy, but closer to a tragedy?) Based on the real life of fraudulent “penny stock” trader Jordan Belfort and set during his rise and fall in the late 80s and 90s, it takes a fairly reprehensible individual working in an institutionally unsavoury sector and, through a winning (maybe even Oscar-winning) turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns him into if not exactly a hero, certainly someone you find yourself rooting for, against your better judgement. In this, and over a potentially wearisome three-hour running time, it cannot be faulted for holding its nerve. Talking to camera when he’s not rallying his white-collar troops like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker Frank T.J. “Respect the cock!” Mackey from Magnolia, DiCaprio somehow puts meat onto the bones of an appalling man doing appalling things with his even more appalling wingman Jonah Hill.

Foul-mouthed, misogynist, self-serving, dishonest, drug-addled, amoral, scheming, brutish, mercenary and at the very least seedy, these financial whizz-kids are no less confidence tricksters than Bale’s American hustlers and yet, working under the regulatory radar, they are almost Robin Hood figures in Scorsese and writer Terence Winter’s version of events. Theirs is a male business, and they behave in the most appallingly male ways. Women – and good luck being an actress in this movie – are commodities: whores, essentially, to be bought and sold and discarded. Sure, Belfort gets his comeuppance – they all do – with Kyle Chandler’s subway-riding CIA man constantly encircling with his friendly, squinty eyes and “sweaty balls”, but what makes Wolf Of Wall Street so compelling is that very eventuality. You know, just as you know Solomon Northup will soon not be a slave, the orgy cannot last. But you will it to carry on, such is the velocity of Scorsese’s film.

It’s pointless to have a favourite, but of the best picture nominees, I’m currently divided between Nebraska, Gravity and Wall Street. Gravity is what I call “pure cinema”. Nebraska is Alexander Payne revisiting his home state for an austerity comedy drama that tilts at The Last Picture Show for profundity and epic sweep. Wall Street dares to lionise the sort of casino-banker who arrogantly manhandled us into this recession and may forfeit Academy votes as a result. But it’s so rare to see a rollicking comedy duking it out with drama’s big boys. There are elements of comedy in Nebraska, Hustle, Philomena and – I detect – Her (another omission on my dance card), but none are all out. Wall Street is.

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Can I say a few words of support for this year’s great lost Oscar movie? All Is Lost, from JC Chandor, whose debut was the outstanding financial-crash fable Margin Call, is as “pure” as Gravity, and also about human beings adrift. In place of Sandra Bullock in space, we have Robert Redford’s solo sailor in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For both, all seems lost. I won’t confirm the outcome; needless to say, with a screenplay of few words, Chandor and Redford tell a tale that resonates down the ages: man versus the elements. Beginning with the unnamed captain’s message in a bottle, it works backwards eight days and walks us through his deteriorating pickle.

That All Is Lost was recognised with one Oscar nomination for best sound editing, and two Globe nominations for actor and score (the second of which it won), is a disgrace. Bafta ignored it altogether in its haste to garland American Hustle. (All hail the New York Film Critics Circle, which spotted that Redford was the year’s best actor.)

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Gravity has digital spectacle on its side, and Alfonso Cuarón may well deserve best director for what he has achieved within the strictures of that job description – I saw the film in 3D and 2D, and it works in both. But while Gravity pushes forward to infinity and beyond, in a sense All Is Lost delves backwards into analogue action spectacle. Robert Redford, the old man, and the sea, thrown together in the water tank built for Titanic, and, er, that’s it. I was gripped from one end to the other, with no notion of how it would play out. It’s probably just a coincidence that Captain Philips, more conventional still, should depict those in peril on the sea.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

Again, I was gripped. And it should be noted that the cinema showing I attended was potentially scuppered by a row of four disgraceful young kids who had bought their tickets with no intention of respecting the film and kept talking and changing seats throughout, destroying any mood skilfully constructed by Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and the crew. Staff were called to the screen on three occasions, the third by me, and at no point were these kids dissuaded of their approach, or threatened with expulsion; we complained afterward, for what it was worth. Captain Phillips‘ towering achievement was to grip and involve with all that shit going on. Bravo.

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The thing about Nebraska is that I knew what it was going to be like from the first stills, never mind the trailer. I am attuned to Payne’s melancholia and his penchant for men walking along by the sides of roads, and although I knew I’d love his hymn to the wide open spaces of the Cornhusker State, this does not diminish that love. I’d be more than happy if Bruce Dern – at 77 the same age as the snubbed Robert Redford – took best actor and made DiCaprio wait another year. It’s a Henry Fonda or a Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a Christopher Plummer in Beginners, a Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, a John Wayne in True Grit, an Emmanuelle Riva in Amour … hey, a Jack Nicholson in Payne’s About Schmidt – the kind of part you have to earn.

I have yet to see Dallas Buyers Club, although I have been enjoying Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance and felt his energy in a cameo in Wall Street, so there’s little reason to doubt he’s on award-winning form as the HIV-positive Texan. Of the best actresses, Cate Blanchett is the best thing about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, so my hopes are on her, with a soft spot too for Sally Hawkins are best supporting actress in the same, rich film. If Somalian limo driver Barkhad Abdi got best supporting actor for Captain Phillips, his first film, we could all go home happy: he’s electrifying.

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There’s a grumpy line that says we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about who wins the Oscars, or indeed any of the other statuettes and perspex doorstops. “When was the last time the best film of the year won the Oscar?”, the naysayers say, when not saying “nay”. As stated, I know for a fact that one of my favourite films of 2013 won’t win any of the major awards, because it is All Is Lost. Same goes for Inside Llewyn Davis, which is also locked out of the love-in and yet looks for all the world to be the best thing the Coens have done, if you like a bit of bleak medicine, and I do. I haven’t said much about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, because it’s a pretty unremarkable film about a remarkable man, the least anyone could do with his lifestory, just as Ordinary Love is the least U2 could do for a theme tune. But for the song to earn a nomination and Idris Elba not is typical of the seemingly random nature of it all.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about the Oscars and to second-guess the proclivities of an organisation that, as of 2012, was 94% white, 77% male and with a median age of 62. Also, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it?

And at least they ignored The Butler.

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Trouble downstairs

After all the Oscar and Golden Globes heat, I was looking forward to seeing Albert Nobbs, despite my sentimentality needle going into the red every time I saw the trailer. I remember this film with the weird name standing out of the speculative longlists during the first flush of “Oscar buzz” at the start of the year as it was pretty much the only one I didn’t recognise. I was quickly up to speed: it was the one in which Glenn Close plays a man.

Albert Nobbs is a woman in 1890s Dublin who has adopted the persona of a man in order to get better-paid work. Or at least, that’s what I took away from it. She is also a lesbian, although a repressed one who dreams less of getting it on with another woman, than settling down in respectable marriage with one, so that she can be the husband. Working as a waiter in an upmarket hotel, run by Pauline Collins, one of the few non-Irish actors in the film who manages a decent Irish accent, Nobbs – prim, proper, upright, stiff, reticent, deferential, all those things – meets Janet McTeer’s painter and decorator, a man who also turns out to be a woman in disguise. Except McTeer – who steals the film from under Close’s prim, proper etc. nose – has a wife. We see the couple at home, a lesbian couple who must maintain the dressing-up-box pretence of heterosexuality even in their front room, in case a neighbour should walk past the window.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – apart from: what are the chances of two cross-dressing lesbians in male professions meeting up by pure chance in 1890s Ireland? – this sounds like an original and interesting premise for a period drama. A landmark in “Queer Cinema” but, like Brokeback Mountain, disguised as mainstream entertainment. What a wasted opportunity it turned out to be.

The film’s backstory is far more interesting than the film itself. Based on a 1918 novella by James Joyce-influencing writer George Moore (published in 1927), Glenn Close played the role in a stage adaptation in 1982 and has been trying to bring it to the screen ever since. It’s a passion play for her. And you have to admire her tenacity. The trouble is, if was shocking in 1927, and still a bit shocking in 1982, it’s just not shocking at all in 2012. Indeed, it’s all rather quaint. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez!) in flat, muted colours and at a stately pace, it has the feel of a Sunday night episode of Upstairs Downstairs or something by Catherine Cookson.

It’s a 15 certificate, but needn’t be. At one stage McTeer flashes her breasts at Close as a big reveal that I’m afraid we all saw coming, even if Albert Nobbs didn’t, and Brendan Gleeson is seen going down on Maria Doyle Kennedy, but under the sheets. Beyond that, it’s a U. Not that it needed sex; after all, Nobbs, despite his name, is very much above the belt. But it could have done with a bit more lust, or a bit more colour in its cheeks. It opens so well, with a fabulously mixed parade of hotel guests trooping into Pauline Collins’ formal dining room, including the always-brilliant Gleeson, a gay dandy played by Jonathan Rhys Myers (he gets two scenes in the whole film), and servants fleshed out by the talented likes of Mark Williams, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Mia Wasikowska, Brenda Fricker and the aforementioned Doyle Kennedy.

Such a lot of acting talent to so slender an end. Aaron Johnson is the handyman with eyes for Wasikowska, and their affair is supposed to engage our interest, but doesn’t. (Johnson’s accent is possibly the worst on screen.) She was perfectly ornate in Alice In Wonderland and I bought her as a modern teen in The Kids Are All Right, but Wasikowska fails to breathe life into her mousy maid. Doyle Kennedy and Gleeson are onscreen not enough, and Rhys Meyers hardly at all. The interiors are claustrophobic – all poorly lit corridors and pokey bedrooms – but when we go outside, the period streets scenes were clearly limited by budget, and little air blows through.

I didn’t hate it or anything. There’s not much in it to like, or dislike. Close’s performance, hobbled by an inconsistent accent, is delicate and precise, but Nobbs is hard to understand, she comes across as a cipher, an otherwordly figure who rarely laughs or comes alive. I’m sure this is true to the text, and the play, but far from complex, she’s a bit like Forrest Gump in a bowler hat.

I emerged from the cinema underwhelmed. I wonder if others, tempted by the Oscar buzz, felt the same? It should have been the performance of Close’s career – and some kind souls said it was – but if Robin Williams had played it, and facially he could have, Nobbs might have pulsed off the screen rather than remain skulking in the background.

Hung, er

It’s a talking point film, Shame. You’re sort of obliged to see it, so that you can talk about it afterwards to other people who’ve seen it. When I saw it, last year, at a preview screening, I ended up talking about it in the pub afterwards with fellow critic Adam Smith for about an hour. We didn’t go to the pub to talk about it. We went to the pub to have a drink and catch up. But we couldn’t stop talking about Shame, despite the fact that neither of us thought it the equal of director Steve McQueen’s debut, also starring Michael Fassbender, Hunger. It is still an artistic, thought-provoking piece, and Fassbender gives another raw and physical performance, but I’m not sure anything could live up to Hunger, which is one of the best films I’ve seen this century and haunts me still.

Shame is causing a stir because it’s about sex addiction, although not about shame, really. A tough sell, as anyone without an addictive personality will probably think being addicted to sex isn’t much of a hardship, but it clearly is. Also, you make a film about sex, and people are going to expect to be titillated, even if they don’t admit it. Shame does not titillate. Its job is to do the opposite, in order to get inside the mind of Fassbender’s Brandon, who has one of those identikit high-flying office jobs in New York that means he gets to live in a nice apartment, wear nice suits and drink in expensive bars. The film reminded me of American Psycho, although Brandon’s psychosis doesn’t really hurt anyone else, it mainly hurts him. And his sister, Carey Mulligan, whose surprise presence in his life hints at something incestuous but only hints.

Shame, written by McQueen and the currently feted Abi Morgan, does a lot of hinting. This is not a problem. I don’t need motivation spelling out, or backstory told in flashback, as long as the action and characterisation strike me as real. In this, Shame succeeds. It frames Brandon’s disease against a glamorous backdrop – hey, we’re in New York, even the dirty streets and trains seems glamorous! – and all this does is accentuate his inner turmoil.

It’s not an easy film to watch, as it throbs with discomfort and awkwardness. When Mulligan walks in on her brother masturbating, or he walks in on her showering, it knocks Mike Leigh into a cocked hat. Or a hatted cock, if you prefer. This might be a film about New York, or cities in general, and their ability to inflict deep loneliness and disconnection. This city never sleeps, and nor do its inhabitants. When Brandon goes outside and runs off his demons and his spare energy, we run with him, in an extended sequence that is McQueen’s bravura moment, one to rival the mopping up of the piss in Hunger, or indeed its extended 17-minute, one-take scene between Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s priest, Father Dom. It’s not quite the equal of either, of course.

I’ve been moaning about the mysterious absence of Tyrannosaur from the Bafta lists, but Shame is not exactly a popcorn movie. It’s art, and difficult art. And to see it racking up award nominations is gratifying. We’re so used to seeing sex onscreen and the conventions around its depiction, which even in intelligent drama dictate that the act itself fades from lovingly dissolved close-ups of hands on bodies while suitable music plays, to the next morning, when light creeps in on discarded underwear and lovers wake up looking a bit disheveled. Nothing so conventional here.

Hunger was a personal, historical film – not exactly a biopic but certainly a depiction of an event in a man’s life – and a subject that meant something to McQueen, who remembers the hunger strikes in 1981 from his childhood and researched the subject thoroughly. (His co-writer was Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who will have had an even closer understanding of the story.) In it, everything came together, and McQueen was able to take the filmmaking that had won him acclaim in the art world into a new setting. Anyone expecting a pretty series of artistic images would have been disappointed. There were beautiful images in it (a snowflake dissolving on a bruised fist), but these did not detract from the seriousness of the subject, nor disrupt what was a very straightforward narrative.

Shame is, in many ways, easier to watch, and its narrative is characterised by ambiguity and missing information. This, I guess, is why it’s such a talking point. That and the sex. It’s a deeply sad film. And you get to see a lot of Fassbender again, if you like a bit of lean, lithe, pale, hairless Irish/German flesh. He really is an incredible screen presence, and although he’s casting flavour of the month, I think he has a lot of integrity and talent, and he will outlast his own fashionability. Although he looks good naked, he’s not vain. You only have to see Hunger to know that.

If you haven’t seen Hunger, best rectify that first. Then have a look at Shame, but don’t see either with a date.

 

Utah faint


Here it is, then: along with The King’s Speech, the other overhyped “first great film of 2011” …

127 Hours. Like The King’s Speech, it’s British-made, Oscar-ready and based on a true story. Unlike The King’s Speech, it mostly won’t give you a warm feeling inside. On the contrary, you may spend much of its 94-minute running time squirming, groaning, shaking your head, feeling existentially miserable and, towards its climax, arching your whole body in your seat like I did, pushing your feet against the seat in front and stretching your neck behind the headrest. Yes, it’s a film you will know you’ve seen after you’ve seen it. Unlike The King’s Speech.

Danny Boyle, who directed it, and Simon Beaufoy, who co-wrote it with him, have not wasted a single drop of the goodwill afforded them after the success of Slumdog Millionaire. Having worked for years with Alex Garland, Danny seems to have found a new best friend. Their screenplay, based on Aron Ralston’s bestselling account of what happened to him when he got his arm wedged behind a boulder in a canyon in Utah in 2003, is less about dialogue (although there is some), and more about the skilful ordering of events, and the judicious use of flashbacks and hallucinations, ultimately conveying the treacly passage of time and the churning over and over and over of the implications until a this-is-it decision is made.

Not sure if we need a SPOILER ALERT here, as Ralston’s remarkable story came out in book form in 2004, and, thanks to the publicity around the film – and boy has there been a lot of publicity – it’s back in circulation again. The film is called 127 Hours and even the most cursory precis will tell you that he’s a sort of extreme thrillseeker who gets trapped in a canyon for 127 hours before escaping to write a book. Most articles and reviews I’ve read also tell you how he got out of there. For me, knowing what he did, in real life, is what powers the film. I had read about the real event in detail, and I went along to the film in the secure knowledge that Danny Boyle was going to show me that event, and that it would be at the end of the film. It’s like going to see Titanic. Hey, or The King’s Speech. It’s not the destination, it’s the getting there that counts.

In many ways, 127 Hours is pure cinema. It’s as if someone set Danny Boyle an exercise: take this very specific true-life adventure, with one protagonist, stuck in one place, where time passing is a key element and most people know that he survives and has to do something pretty unusual to ensure that survival … and off you go! The blend of narrative economy and visual fireworks is brilliantly stirred: it’s still and quiet and logical and practical and functional when it needs to be, and it’s dazzling and jolting and imaginative and impressionistic and rollercoasting when it needs to be – and it needs to be both. Have you seen Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck? It’s a useful point of reference: another film, a lot more loosely based on actual events but rooted in reality, in which two young hikers get into trouble in the great outdoors, this time wandering off the beaten track in Death Valley and getting lost. I guess the big difference is that in Gerry, the action is partly improvised, and it shows, in a good way and a bad way. Here, everything is tightly choreographed, and it pins you to your seat because of that.

James Franco is amazing as Ralston. He’s onscreen the whole time, mostly stuck in his predicament, sometimes filming himself on a camcorder and even playing up for the camera, allowing us to read his mind when Boyle isn’t actually showing us what’s going on inside it. I had my doubts about Franco, especially after the Spider-Man films, but he’s turned it around, mostly thanks to Judd Apatow, who cast him on TV in Freaks & Geeks before he became Harry Osbourn, and set him back on the right road with stoner parts in Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, after which our old pal Gus Van Sant cast him as Harvey’s boyfriend in Milk, and all was well with his world. 127 Hours will surely earn Franco his first Oscar nomination. There’s a lot of acting going on up on that screen.

Boyle is often characterised as a risk-taker, and there’s a lot of truth in it. Slumdog was a risk that paid off. So was 28 Days Later before that. And Sunshine, which didn’t pay off quite as handsomely, although I really loved it up until the ludicrous denouement. Trainspotting itself wasn’t the sure thing it seemed once the marketing had kicked in, and nobody knew what Shallow Grave would do, or whether there was even an appetite for a Scottish chamber piece. And as much as I disliked it, you have to hand it to him for having a crack at a large-canvas American screwball comedy with A Life Less Ordinary. He’s a useful person to have on our team, and although the hype around 127 Hours can seem offputting, and the more you read about it, the more you think you know what it’s going to be like, it really has to be seen.

A word about the defining act of the story and the advance squeamishness you are feeling about it (just as I was until this afternoon at the Curzon): it’s beyond belief what Ralston did to free himself, and it is the film’s money shot, or shots. But that’s not to say it’s exploitative. If you enjoy the Saw movies – and, after the first one, I categorically do not – you may still be shocked. Not shocked by what you see – as with all the best cinematic gore, it’s as much imagined, and felt, and heard, as seen – but shocked to see a sequence of extreme corporeal violence that is actually central to the story. The bloody shocks in Saw are designed to shock and shock only. This one is designed to make you ponder your existence. No, really. Ralston was – and presumably still is, in his DNA – a loner. A true independent spirit. He jumped down canyons alone, with his headphones on, at one with nature and the last great wilderness, but at one. Most of us would prefer not to be on our own for 24 hours, let alone 127, and if trapped as he was, we might not have had the mental tools to get out of it.

I am not an adventurer like he is. Never will be. But nor, I hope, am I selfish, arrogant bastard who ignores his mother’s ansaphone messages and takes off without telling a single soul where he’s going. But there’s even a postscript to all that at the end.

Warning: 127 Hours contains a song by Dido.

Please be upstanding

First big film release of 2011, and, unusually, I’ve actually seen it in advance, thanks to a special Curzon screening before Christmas: The King’s Speech. You can’t move for advance hype, which seems to be working, judging by the seven Golden Globe nominations and countless US and Canadian critics’ circle awards from Detroit to Dallas Forth Worth. We are looking less at a film here, and more at a global marketing strategy. It’s a British film that has been cunningly released in North America first so that it generates the buzz of a “limited release”, picks up festival props, and qualifies for the 2011 awards season. It was farmed out for special preview screenings like the one I attended before Christmas so that it would also qualify for the Baftas and the British Independent Film Awards – which showered it in glory in December. So, it is finally released here nationwide on Friday, following weeks of being trailed at cinemas and amid acres of coverage in the newspapers (and a paid-for advertorial “pull-out” in today’s Observer). When people duly troop out to see it on Friday, many will feel as if they’ve already seen it.

The King’s Speech seems to have been handled as if it were an indie sleeper hit in the making, when in fact it is a big, populist period romp, the type we’re awfully good at and can’t resist presenting to the rest of the world. (The Yanks have certainly fallen for its charms. Are they that easy to win over? Perhaps, just like I did with Happy Days in the 70s, they think it’s a contemporary drama.) This is the film that’s got it all: a newsreel-familiar backdrop taken from schoolbook 20th century history – namely, the 1936 Abdication Crisis, with its well-worn narrative markers: Wallis Simpson, the resignation of Stanley Baldwin, the storm clouds and outbreak of war – a potentially farcical and yet helpline-ready conceit at its core – the curing of a speech impediment – and three tailor-made parts, two of them iconic, for fine actors to get their teeth into: reluctant, stammering King George VI (Colin Firth), the game, convention-defying Queen Mum-to-be (Helena Bonham-Carter), and Lionel Logue, the eccentric, freewheeling Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).

If you’ve seen the trailer – and if you’ve been to the cinema since November, you will have, again and again – then you’ll know the story: the Prince, as he is to begin with, is unsuited to public speaking due to a stutter and must overcome his affliction in time to make a key speech that will unite the country now at war. Will he do it? Yes he will. It is written. Just as the decisive free kick in Bend It Like Beckham was written.

So it is that we have a film that’s impeccable in every sense – the acting, the writing, the period recreation, the music, the marketing – and yet one with no jeopardy built into it at any stage. It’s like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus in that sense: we know the final score, we know that nobody dies except King George V, but we’re prepared to climb aboard for the ride just to see the lovely view. However, I actively disliked Invictus, while it’s actually impossible to dislike The King’s Speech. Tourists are fascinated by our royal family; they’re a period piece wherever they go and whatever era they’re in, so any drama that features them, ancient or modern, suits the backward, forelock-tugging, slightly frilly, sexually repressed image of the United Kingdom foreigners prefer. So you can see why the Americans are eating this up, and letting us off for the fallback portrayal of Mrs Simpson as a controlling, vulgar, social and constitutional virus (a nice turn by Eve Best, who’s actually English – she’s in Nurse Jackie).

It’s a gift that, in truth, the man who unlocked George’s stammer was a gregarious, unconventional Aussie who refused to bow and scrape; this, again, chimes with the orthodoxy that Englishmen are uptight, and foreigners free. Firth is note perfect as the comedy King; Rush actually very subtle as his nemesis-turned-saviour. Whether it’s accurate or not, when Logue coaches George to use swear words to unclog his stutter he provides another British actor in a British film with another British excuse to let go and turn the British air blue. Since Hugh Grant did it at the start of Four Weddings, it’s been compulsory. Ha ha, listen to the stuffy British man say “fuck”!

I am filled with admiration for The King’s Speech and I won’t mind a bit if it wins some more awards and earns its marketing team a week off. It’s expertly staged. It might win Firth the Oscar we can all say he should have won for A Single Man. I just wish that once in its 111-minute running time, I’d been surprised. Just as I felt I’d already seen it when I hadn’t, now that I have, I can’t quite remember whether I have.

Pretty pictures

Going to see lots of films at the moment, but too busy working to actually write about them. But hey, it’s Oscars run-up, so let me take this opportunity to catch up with three that have awards-season form. A Single Man is one of my favourite films of 2010 so far, a singular piece of work, based on a 1964 novel, set in 1962 just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Christopher Isherwood, which, despite being a key piece of gay lib lit, nobody I know seems to have read. (Perhaps you had to be there.) It’s an intrinsically gay film, in that it’s about a gay man who loses his gay lover and risks a gay affair, and even his one meaningful friendship with a woman is affected by his gayness. And yet, it’s not a gay film at all, it’s a film about grief, loss, love and lust that just happens to be about same-sex grief, loss, love and lust. I’m not spoiling anything to say that it begins with the news of the loss – a scene in which, after all these years of mucking about and narrowing his eyes, Colin Firth gets to act. With his face. This is not stage acting, this is screen acting; it’s all in the tiny nuances. These minutes are worth an Oscar – or a Bafta – on their own. The detail that makes the scene is that the family of Firth’s lover, who he’s been with for something like 14 years, don’t want him at the funeral. This stings, and reminds us that the world was very different in 1962, even if you were on a trendy Los Angeles college campus. Tom Ford is a fashion designer. I know this, even though I care nothing about fashion and have only heard of fashion designers. (I have heard of Alexander McQueen, and accept that he was clearly good at his job, but I don’t connect with him in the way that I might an actor or a writer.) I sort of don’t care what Tom Ford was, or is – can he direct? Well, he has directed Colin Firth to his first acting awards, and teases honest and full-blooded performances from Nicholas Hoult and Julianne Moore, so he’s doing something right. And A Single Man is an exquisite looking film, as you might expect. It is neat and tidy and tailored, but that’s because the main character is neat and tidy and tailored, a neatness and tidiness and tailoredness that masks the fact that he’s in bits. Some have accused the film of being cold and distant; I felt the opposite. It’s Mad Men-on-sea.

Hey, I thought Eddie Murphy had finished wearing fat suits and caricaturing black people! Ha ha. That is my little joke. Precious has been around for a while now, and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film, and if the trailer puts you off seeing it, you’re probably best off not seeing it – this is not for the socially squeamish. Based on another novel that nobody I know has read, it’s an unshowy film that moves at the sluggish, incidental pace of real life, with occasional bursts of action which, sadly for Precious herself, are usually bursts of rage or cruelty or pain. Again, some have accused the film of indulging in social and racial tourism, in that unless you live below the poverty line in an ethnic ghetto where a foot hovers constantly over your chances you are necessarily going to be viewing another world. But isn’t fiction all about taking us to other worlds? (The film is set in Harlem in 1987, although you’d hardly notice that it’s a period piece beyond the lack of cellphones.) This is a soul movie. It works like all the best soul music: it’s simple, it’s emotionally charged and it comes from here. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’nique deserve all the praise that’s being heaped upon them – especially Mo’nique, as she has to play the monster without turning this into a horror movie – but all the girls in Precious’s special education class are excellent, too. If it was all misery, it wouldn’t work, but it’s not. In the trailer, Paula Patton’s angelic teacher says, tearfully, “Your baby loves … I love you,” to a sobbing Precious, and it’s the Soul Moment – but you need to understand the context.

Well, I’ve never read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I know people who have, mainly women, and they seem to greatly admire its tale of a 14-year-old girl raped and murdered in a small Pennsylvania town in 1973 who watches over her grieving family from a waystation between here and heaven. I am unmarried to the original text, so approached the film, directed by Peter Jackson, without prejudice. I thought it looked intriguing and would be a nice change from all his CGI stuff. Oh dear. He seems to have opted to fillet a rather bleak story and remodel it into a kids’ fairy tale. It’s a 12A, which is fine, so is A Single Man, and that’s for grown-ups. Saoirse Ronan, aged 14 when she filmed it, is a luminous presence, and does a pretty good American accent too, but she is neither here nor there in a film where two films are poured into the same jug and just swirl around but do not mix. One film is a kitchen sink drama about a girl being murdered by the local weirdo (Stanley Tucci with a comb-over, identified as the killer from the beginning, thus making any tension about his capture flimsy and uninvolving); the other is a gloopy, Yellow Submarine-style fantasy about the gap between heaven and earth, which, instead of some kind of terrifying limbo as it initially appears, quickly flowers into a kind of paradise with trees and grass and beaches and sunshine, where huge symbols crash into view – ooh, look, the model ships-in-bottles that the girl’s dad used to make as his hobby are now giant ships-in-giant bottles and they’re in the sea and they’re smashing against the rocks, subtly symbolising that all is not well in her father’s world and the fact that, oh, he’s smashing the bottles in real life. It’s like Terry Gilliams sneaked into the editing suite and inserted bits of one of his films into an episode of Waking The Dead. It’s surely significant of the film’s cowardice that there is no mention, not even a hint, that the girl has been raped in the film. The nature of her murder is also skirted around, but that’s not a problem, as she is dead. It’s as if the awkward sexual assault aspect would spoil Jackson’s film about the afterlife. Having her murdered is OK, but not raped as that’s a bit icky. So we have a film about a serious subject – death – that’s rendered ludicrous by wishful fantasy. Please tell me the book had a bit more heft and depth.

Now, back to work. Although I am on BBC News at 6.30 tonight, talking about the Baftas, so banging on about films and work collide.