Mild Ranting

Review Of 2015: The 10 Most Resolutely Meh Films Of 2015

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By now you’ve probably had your fill of end of year lists. If you’re anything like me then you’ll have digested, pored over and tutted at list upon list of people’s personal film choices of the year. Most of these lists will be people’s top film choices of the year, and occasionally they will – as I did – also pick out their least favourites. But I always like to go the extra mile here at The Movie Evangelist, so I once again bring you my ten Most Resolutely Meh Films Of 2015.

That’s exactly what you’d expect: the ten films I felt most apathetic towards once I’d left the cinema. They’d occasionally excited me, sometimes appalled me but more often than not left me checking my watch and wondering if a toilet break may be more interesting. They’re the ones neither good enough to grace my Blu-ray collection, nor terrible enough to be appearing in a bargain bin near you within a week of release. While I spend an average of five hours a week in a cinema, these are the films that made me wish I’d found some paint to watch drying or perhaps had paid significantly more attention in cutting my toenails.

Here then are the ten films most likely to induce a cinematic coma from the past twelve months.

10. Birdman

Birdman

Ooh look, it’s all clever and it farts around inside and outside a theatre and looks like it’s a single shot even though it’s a conceit that neither really stands up not adds anything to the story. It’s also a very actorly film, with actors ACTING and being INTENSE and it hoovered up a bag of awards because most of them are voted for by actors. But it’s actually tiresome and trying and made me want to punch other people in the cinema in sheer frustration, and I’m not a violent man. Michael Keaton saved it from being truly terrible, and it has a couple of nice moments, but for a film that was supposedly the best thing since a sliced Steadicam it’s deeply unfulfilling.

9. The Night Before

thenightbefore

Dante famously described in the first part of the Divine Comedy, Inferno, nine circles of Hell. Having passed through the gate marked “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”, he then described a room covered in endless TV monitors. On each, there is another Seth Rogen / Evan Goldberg comedy, all now totally indistinguishable from each other, where occasionally a joke can be glimpsed from the corner of your eye, but where that joke remains tantalisingly, tortuously out of reach. Then the poet Virgil appears and reminds you that Superbad was actually quite funny but it was eight years ago.

8. Black Mass

Black Mass

For Christmas, I received a game which featured on the TV show Dragon’s Den. It consists of two piles of cards, one containing phrases and one containing accents. There is a game which you are supposed to play, but we found it much more entertaining to pick up a phrase card and an accent card and to just say the phrase in the accent, and hilarity generally ensues. This film is like that game, except all of the accent cards have been replaced with “Unconvincing Bostonian”. My girlfriend’s sister spent twenty minutes attempting to convey South African, but I reckon she could have had a better stab at a Boston drawl than Benedict Cumberbatch. Not only that, but Johnny Depp’s film career seems to have turned into a bizarre fetish dressing up party that we’re all invited to, and someone’s locked the doors so we can’t get out.

7. Everest

Everest

The world’s highest mountain, standing just short of nine kilometres above sea level where the wind chill can reduce the temperature to -60ºC, where the air is only one quarter oxygen and which the Tibetans call “Mother Goddess Of The Universe” and the Nepalese call “Forehead Of The Sky”. Sounds majestic and imposing, doesn’t it? But if I tell you that the first tweet was sent from the summit in 2005, somehow that dulls the magic, doesn’t it? Everest is the film version of that tweet, a dramatic retelling of a massive mountaineering tragedy that consists of people dying slowly in the cold and has no idea how to make any of it dramatically compelling.

6. Southpaw

southpaw-film

Sorry, Jake Gyllenhaal. I thought you were exceptional in Nightcrawler. You were fascinating in Prisoners. You were charismatic in Source Code. You were compelling in Donnie Darko , and powerful in Brokeback Mountain. You grounded Zodiac, and even made End Of Watch watchable in places. But even you couldn’t save this turgid mess from its narrative cul-de-sacs and tedious riches to rags plotting. Even the fight scenes were about as satisfying as trying to eat a blancmange by falling asleep in it face first and hoping for osmosis to kick in. Southpaw isn’t terrible, but if it was on TV late at night you’d be channel flicking in half an hour.

5. American Sniper

American-Sniper-Movie

Clint Eastwood is 85. That’s a fantastic achievement, but his films give the impression that he’s at least twenty years older. His direction has become fundamentally flawed, squeezing the interest out of almost every scene, to the point where he couldn’t even be bothered to disguise an obviously fake baby. But I wish that was the worst crime that the film had committed: for a Republican, Eastwood has made some surprisingly liberal films over the years but rather than making deep and meaningful points about the nature of war and the politics of the conflicts concerned, American Sniper is content to simply muddle through to its tacked on ending and to hope no-on cares.

4. Mr Holmes

Mr-Holmes

I’m a sucker for a hot dog; if I wasn’t currently dieting to shed the Christmas pounds then I’d probably be feasting on one instead of dinner every time I visited the cinema. But imagine a hot dog with no dog: no matter how good the artisanal brioche bun might be, how good the finest ketchup or mustard slathered across the bun are, without the sausage all you’re doing is eating through a whole lot of uninteresting bread. In the latest of my series entitled “Obvious Food Analogies”, Mr Holmes is that hot dog bun and mystery solving is the sausage, because this is a film about the world’s greatest literary detective where he does barely five minutes of detecting. About as dramatic as watching Gary Neville go shopping for slippers.

3. Suite Française

200813SH_126.nef

Nope, this was so dull I really can’t remember much about it at all. I can remember Kristin Scott Thomas, but I’ve slightly cheated because I looked at the picture above. It doesn’t help that Michelle Williams and Mathias Schoenaerts both have faces that default to a setting so expressionless that you can feel your own emotions being slowly drained out through your eyeballs, your soul clinging desperately to their coat-tails so as not to have to sit through any more of this bland dollop of a film. It’s the kind of restrained, stiff upper lip film that feels allergic to emotion and would like very much to see if you can catch that allergy too. Good heavens, Kristin looks miserable, doesn’t she? I know how she feels.

2. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From UNCLE

Do they make Hollywood stars from pouring botox into moulds these days and then stuffing in a monotone voice box, like a Build-A-Bear Factory for actors where you then get a choice of more expensive outfits? That surely is how they came up with Henry Cavill, but he’s so teeth-clenchingly dull that if he was ever cast as James Bond I’d spend the rest of my life trying to invent time travel so could go back and force Ian Fleming to write “Henry Cavill must never play Bond, he’s duller than toothpaste” in the front of every one of his novels. I’m not sure that anyone knows what the point of Armie Hammer is any more, either. I very much enjoyed a lot of Guy Ritchie’s earlier work, but this is a steaming pile of nobody cares that’s been rounded into an amorphous blob and polished until you can see your own tragic, despairing face and the hand holding a ticket for this film reflected in it.

1. Spectre

The paragraph below the picture contains moderate spoilers for Spectre. If you’ve not seen it, you’ll probably go and watch it now, but don’t blame me, I tried to warn you.

christoph-waltz-spectre

What happened? Like waking up on Christmas morning to discover that all of your presents are just large boxes filled with sticks, Spectre promised a lot – not least from the excellent trailer, the high calibre cast and a returning director who did remarkably well on his debut – but delivered a film so lacking in genuine incident and spectacle after the opening titles that it almost beggars belief.

From a car chase where none of the gadgets were installed and the hero spends most of it on the phone to his boss’s secretary, to a sidekick who sets a world record for the shortest ever time being chased by bad guys, to a hunt for the villain that gets so lost it has to sit and wait to be collected, to a lair in which the villain that attempts to look menacing by employing a small room of people who could all be auditioning for a sequel to Steve Jobs and a finale whose action scenes are a man running around a building to zero effect before he briefly fires a small pistol at a helicopter before he doesn’t do anything else at all, Spectre is a catalogue of underachievement and failure from (ten minutes after the) start to finish.

Spectre became so hung up on nostalgia that it coasts by on past glories, rather than giving us anything to set our pulses racing anew. Even worse, it spurns golden opportunities to liven up otherwise dull, unimpressive sequences such as the plane chase with a dash of Bond theme. For achieving unheralded and unwanted levels in the fields of boredom and frustration, Spectre is my most resolutely “meh” film of the year. Double oh no.

Previous year:

The 10 Most Resolutely Meh Films Of 2012

Other specialist charts:

The Top 10 Old Films Of 2014

Top 20 Most Brain-Achingly Stupidly Idiotic Films Of 2013

The Top 10 Gingers Of 2011

Competition Commission: And Now, The End Is Near

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Cineworld Cambridge

Finally, more than two years after Cineworld plc acquired the City Screen business that operates Picturehouse cinemas (yes, it was December 6th 2012 that this all started), and getting on for two years after the Office Of Fair Trading first referred the purchase to the Competition Commission, the actions that the Competition Commission requested have finally now all been completed and we can – almost – make an assessment of who’s gained and lost in this process. Today it was announced, about a week after the signs came down and the speculation began, that the European cinema chain The Light would be taking over operation of the Cineworld in Cambridge. The chain, started by businessmen Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan, currently operates two cinemas in the UK in New Brighton and Wisbech as well as two in Europe, with plans for another six in the UK over the next two years. Their mission statement on their website is promising, as they pledge:

  • Eye catching architecture and contemporary interior design which creates an exciting environment and encourages socialising.
  • Adventurous film programming, featuring blockbusters, independent and international films.
  • The newest and latest on screen content: opera, sport and music
  • A café bar creating relaxed atmosphere, a place to socialise and attract the mix of families, young people and mature adults who make up the cinema audience.

But this process has taken so long, it might be easy to forget how we got to this point. (It’s been frustrating recently for customers of the Cambridge cinemas, but the nature of the legal process meant that no one could formally announce anything until the sale was completed.) With a particular film theme, let’s look at the winners and losers in all this.

The Good – good news for Picturehouse customers

Back in 2012 when the acquisition was first announced, the mood was pessimistic to say the least. It was presumed by many that the change in ownership would see the cinemas transformed into mini-multiplexes, losing their focus and character, yet if you look around the country that hasn’t happened. I can say this with first hand knowledge, having been to Picturehouse cinemas in Norwich, Liverpool, Hackney, Exeter, Southampton and Edinburgh since that day in 2012 as well as my two locals, and they all still by and large have the same quirky, comfortable atmosphere and the same higher end film programme. Each is distinct but clearly part of something larger, and that can also be said of the cinema in Cambridge.

Two of the the Picturehouses did get sold under the Competition Commission decision, in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds. The former was purchased by Filmhouse, who not only run an independent arthouse cinema in Edinburgh but also the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has carried on pretty much business as usual. The latter was bought by Tony Jones, former co-founder of City Screen and now back in independent cinema. The Picturehouse programming arm continues to programme for that cinema and a reciprocal agreement on membership has kept discounts in place. Thankfully the cinema had a significant refurbishment before the sale and the bar and restaurant are a delight, and with the news that the Abbeygate (as it is now called) have purchased the bingo hall next door and are converting that to a third screen, the future of quality cinema in Bury St. Edmunds also looks assured.

But these were always likely to be the easier of the two situations. It wasn’t impossible that an independent could have come in and taken over Cambridge, just that there were so many more babies in the bathwater there that a change in ownership could have very easily set the cinema on a path to ruin. The easiest way to maintain everything that the cinema stood for seemed to be to keep the current owners in charge, and that has been the final outcome. The Arts Picturehouse will remain, and for those like myself who stood on the pavement outside the cinema in 2013, placards in hand, and to the 15,126 people who signed the petition directed at the Competition Commission – the vast majority of whom were current or former Arts customers – it is time to breath a sigh of relief, albeit a guarded one.

I’ve been in discussions with people on social media who fear that the change to a mini-multiplex in 2012 was just delayed for Cambridge and that the programming for the Arts Picturehouse will now simply transform it into the mini-multiplex now that Cambridge no longer has a Cineworld in town. There’s a few reasons why I don’t think – and hope, for nothing in life is certain – that this will happen. First off, Cineworld seem to have recognised through this process that Cambridge is one of the crown jewels of the Picturehouse chain and that to dilute it now would be nonsensical. The multiplex that they are selling has around four times the seating capacity in its nine screens that the Arts has in its three, and even the economists of the Competition Commission (sorry, couldn’t resist one last dig) could work out that a profit-based decision would be to sell the arts cinema. Also, if you look at the kinds of areas I mentioned earlier (Norwich, Edinburgh, Southampton, Liverpool and so on), they are a mixture of areas both with and without a Cineworld but all with other competition, and their core programming is not so different to that of the Cambridge cinema. Bear in mind that the programming for all of these cinemas is generally planned months in advance and then fine tuned the week before, wholesale changes are not even possible in that sense for some time to come without massive and unnecessary disruption.

However, one of the big things that sets Cambridge apart – and one of the major motivating factors for trying to protect the status quo – is all of the programming at the cinema which doesn’t come directly from Picturehouse or which marks them out from the competitors. If you look at the latest programme you’ll see there’s still at least one 70mm film a month being shown, there are repertory programmes from the University of the Third Age, the University of Cambridge’s Faculty Of Modern and Medieval Languages, short films from gayinthe80s.com / Encompass Network and films from young trainee programmers at Long Road Sixth Form College. But the two most undervalued contributions come from the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium – who have a dozen educational events in the latest programme alone – and the Cambridge Film Trust, who work to foster film education across the Eastern region and the whole of the UK, and who – not the Picturehouse as most people seem to think – run the Cambridge Film Festival each year. The festival last year moved to late August and saw a 30% increase in attendance on the previous year, and if you’ve ever been to the Arts Picturehouse and wondered what was up the stairs beyond the screens, then it’s these organisations and the projectionists. Hopefully any doubt in what the future held for any of them is now removed.

The one comment that I’ve made before and that I’ll make again is that if the programming changes at the Arts Picturehouse, it’s less likely to be as a result of the sale of the Cineworld and more likely to be down to the fact that the cinema’s programmers are making brave choices that then don’t get backed up by an audience. In November the cinema had screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but none in the much larger screen 1, and the cinema responded to audience requests and moved a Friday night screening into screen 1 which then pretty much sold out. But I was also at two separate films on Friday nights in screen 3 last year that had an audience in single figures, and that’s not sustainable. There’s no point in the programmers being bold if no-one then watches the films, and I would urge any regular customers reading this to check their brochures and seek out the daring films being shown. Quite often these days the more niche films, such as the recent Denis Villeneuve release Enemy with Jake Gyllenhall, get relegated to a 10:30 slot because there’s no confidence they’ll attract a sufficient evening crowd, and I can’t buy all of the tickets myself (as much as I’d like to). Just don’t come complaining if you don’t watch the films and then they disappear.

The Bad – Cineworld Unlimited customers (and possibly all Cineworld customers)

Cineworld Unlimited

When someone tells you that you have two things and one is going to be taken away, and that you must lose one or the other with retaining both not an option, then it’s almost impossible to campaign for both. I did try to draw attention to the potential risks of losing the Cineworld in terms of cost, but the momentum to fight for the Cineworld just never materialised to the same extent. I personally consume films in huge volume, averaging around 160 a year since I started this blog, and much of that has been made possible by the use of my Unlimited Premium card. I can and will still visit Cineworlds in Huntingdon, Bury St. Edmunds, Haverhill and Stevenage regularly (as well as a host of others if I’m in the area) and I’m hoping that there’ll be a new Cineworld just fifteen minutes away from me in Ely come next summer, but I’ve often relied on seeing three or four films in a day split between the Arts and the Cineworld in Cambridge. The Light have said they will honour Unlimited cards, which also give significant discounts on food and drink, for three months, but after that I’m expecting to see my costs go up every time I have a film day in Cambridge.

The Competition Commission’s research suggested that around 8% of their customers nationally are Unlimited customers (there was no figure specific to Cambridge). But I guarantee that the vast majority of that 8% in Cambridge are seeing two or more films a month, and for them this will represent either a significant rise in cost or more likely a significant reduction in the number of films they can see in the cinema. Frankly, as this blog was founded on the principle of encouraging people to watch as many films in cinemas as they could, that breaks my heart just a tiny bit. I hope anyone that can’t get to another Cineworld still manages to see some films once the Unlimited extension expires.

But what of the other 92%, those that just buy single or group tickets and don’t rely on the discounts of Unlimited? We’ll know tomorrow at noon, when the Light’s website goes live, whether they’ve gained or lost on price. The fundamental basis for the decision by the Office Of Fair Trading to refer this to the Competition Commission in the first place was that more competition helps to naturally regulate price, but we won’t know until tomorrow if there’s any change to the cinema’s costs. The good news is that in Wisbech, the cinema seems to have recently reduced its prices by 20% in an effort to better pitch to the local consumer. One of the things I found out in my research into this in 2013 is that cinema chains set prices locally, so in that sense competition should have an effect, but there’s probably only half a dozen cities in the country with enough cinemas for competition to make any difference, three being unlikely to cut it. With that 20% price cut in Wisbech, a standard Friday night ticket is still 20p more expensive than their only competitor, the single screen The Luxe – your guess is as good as mine as to whether there’s actually any market forces at work there.

I also then looked at that same Friday night comparison for The Light’s other cinema in New Brighton, and that looks less promising. There’s quite a diverse collection of cinemas within half an hour’s travel of that cinema, and the range of standard Friday night ticket prices is impressive:

New Brighton Prices

To give The Light their credit, they are competing a little with the Picturehouse on content, showing Birdman and A Most Violent Year when few of the other cinemas have, but their closest three cinemas geographically are the three on the left, so if you see a mainstream film at The Light in New Brighton, you’re paying significantly more than the local competition.

So I will reserve judgement on the pricing and film choice of the new cinema until their website is live tomorrow. The best possible outcome for the cinema lovers of Cambridge would be The Light starting to compete more on programming with the Picturehouse while making the pricing competitive, but only time will tell. Hopefully customers, now much more conscious of price if this process has had any effect, will vote with their feet if they’re being overcharged in Cambridge and the pressures of the market might actually have the effect that I cynically doubt they will. I am completely happy to be proven wrong on this one.

The Ugly – the Competition & Markets Authority

Yes, this process has been going so long that the body that referred this decision and the people they referred it to have themselves been merged, the OFT and the Competition Commission becoming one in the Competition & Markets Authority. When you’ve processed the irony of that, let’s recall what the intent of this process was to do. The idea of forcing Cineworld to sell a cinema in three areas was to encourage competition in those areas and that in return, that competition would naturally help to control prices for consumers. As was pointed out by others almost on day one of this process, if that were true in and of itself then cinemas in Leicester Square would be the cheapest in the country, but clearly there’s more at work here. What the CMA and its predecessors couldn’t do – because that would effectively be a price control, and that’s not their remit – would be to determine how much competition should influence pricing in the market. At the time of the sale, one of those standard Friday night tickets at the Cineworld in Cambridge would have set you back £9.90, compared to £9.70 at the Vue or £11.00 at the Picturehouse. If in the longer term those figures don’t all just increase in line with the Retail Price Index, then this process will have achieved something. It will be fascinating to see tomorrow how The Light’s starting price compares to the final Cineworld price; I would argue that if it’s even a penny higher, this process has failed spectacularly on the main front it was trying to deliver.

But actually, I’d make a further argument that it’s already done just that: this process has already repeatedly allowed to happen the exact thing it was designed to stop. 

What do I mean by that? Well, although it couldn’t set price controls, the Competition Commission set a test as part of the third party survey conducted in their investigation. The idea was that they questioned people as to whether or not they’d change cinema if the one they normally went to put their prices up by 5%. The principle is that, if enough people would switch from Picturehouse to Cineworld or vice versa if the price went up in one of them, then it would be in Cineworld plc’s interests to raise prices because they would still keep the profit.

What the research showed was that it was in Cineworld plc’s best interests not to raise prices in Cambridge, because three times as many survey respondents said they would go to the opposition (i.e. Vue) as they would stay with a Cineworld plc cinema. In that event, Cineworld loses all of the money rather than gaining the profit, so that one piece of evidence should have told them that not keeping prices competitive would have seen them lose business, and the market was already telling them.

But that’s not the way the Competition Commission saw it, they demanded the sale of a cinema in Cambridge and two other areas. This was taken from one of my blog posts in September 2013, and prices were still at this level when the Commission made its final judgement in October 2013.

CC Chart 1

Can you guess what happened next? Between then and now, Cineworld have made a price rise of 50p per ticket (more than 5%) and Picturehouse have made two of 50p each (more than 10%). So if there was anything to be gained by customers switching cinemas, then this process has taken so long that Cineworld plc have profited from it three times in Cambridge before the cinema sale went through. Doesn’t that strike you as making this process a spectacular waste of everyone’s time and effort?

Anyway, what’s done is done, and despite our best efforts the process has ploughed on unhindered, ignoring the voices of not only the general public but prominent industry figures and members of both Houses Of Parliament. And now, here we are, with the CMA having taken nearly eighteen months to put a bolt on the stable door, but the horse has already made its exit.

I think there are questions to be asked here of how these bodies have conducted this process: the definition of any kind of success criteria is shaky at best, what I’ve seen an outsider from the reports I’ve read has given the impression that industry feedback has been overlooked in favour of evidence provided by competitors with vested interests in destabilising a competitor and we now have no guarantee that this will actually deliver what it was intended to, especially given that what it was trying to prevent has already happened. Maybe the merger into the CMA dragged out the process, but frankly I would be living in fear and trepidation if this was how the CMA handled an investigation into an industry I worked in. I think, as consumers that this body is working to try to protect, we deserved better.

In Conclusion

Sometimes good things come of bad processes. I would like to give the CMA some credit, for at least in forcing the sale the Picturehouses sold ended up in safe hands of a similar size and shape and we will shortly be in a position to judge if the sale of the Cineworld has had a similarly positive outcome. I truly hope that’s the case here, and in an ideal world The Light would help to keep prices down relative to the cost of living, and we’d start to see them programming some films which might give Picturehouse a bit of competition of the kind we actually need. It might also see the sadly defunct bar next to the Cineworld and the foyer itself given a new lease of life, and possibly an end to the generally loathed allocated seating policies that hadn’t won Cineworld many friends in the last year or so. Putting the Cineworld into the hands of a brand with the best of intentions, but who aren’t as tried and tested as the likes of Odeon or other multiplex operators, is a brave move but it’s not completely without risk either. Like Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, I hope, but the next few months will tell us if it’s warm sand between our toes or a dank, muddy beach covered in puddles and time to get out the Wellington boots.

P.S. One last thank you to all the staff at the Cineworld in Cambridge, who it seems are being taken on by The Light. It’s one of the few multiplexes I’ve ever been to where, when I raised an issue with projection, they did something about it, and the staff have always been friendly and courteous to me. I’d just like to wish them all the best for the future.

Oscars Countdown: The British Are Going (Mad)

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The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.

But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:

– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena

The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.

So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:

’71
The Imitation Game
Paddington
Pride
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin

That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.

The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.

I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.

But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:

Mr Turner
Calvary
The Double
Next Goal Wins
Starred Up
Kajaki: The True Story
Lilting
The Possibilities Are Endless
Belle
Northern Soul
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)

I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.

But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.

Review of 2013: Top 20 Most Brain-Achingly Stupidly Idiotic Films Of The Year

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With films this stupid being made, the time for our comeback has arrived.
With films this stupid being made, the time for our comeback has arrived.

Each year, as part of my review of the year, I list a number of the most prominent features of the year. In addition to the likes of films, actors and trailers I look to highlight one specific feature. Two years ago, it was redheads that dominated the cinematic landscape; last year, I felt that cinema had become stuck in a rut and it was the middling films – those that generated the most “meh” of responses from me – that drew my attention. This year, the overriding theme of the last twelve months in the cinema has been flat out, balls-to-the-wall stupidity.

Maybe it’s always been there, and I just haven’t noticed, or maybe someone’s been putting something in Hollywood’s water. But there does seem to me to be a trend towards plotting which doesn’t concern itself with joining A to B in a convincing manner. I’m not talking here about the kind of goofs that the likes of the Internet Movie Database catalogue, in astonishingly precise levels of detail. Take, for example, this excerpt from the goofs for Gravity:

IMDb Gravity

Er, fascinating. But it’s not this level of astonishing pedantry that I’m concerned with here, but a far more fundamental lack of understanding of the basic rules of life, logic and physics. Read through this list, and let me know whether you think 2013 marks a new low in terms of movie braininess, or if actually this level of film-based nonsense is par for the course. I’d also be more than happy for you to point out any gaps in my own logic in the comments section, before I reply as politely as possible through barely gritted teeth.

Warning: major spoilers follow for some of the year’s biggest releases. Scroll down slowly, so you can skip on past the picture if you’ve not seen a film and want to remain spoiler free.

20. R.I.P.D.

RIPD

To get us started, consider the basic set-up for massively slated Ryan Reynolds flop R.I.P.D. If you’ve not seen it, the basic premise is that Reynolds and his former partner Kevin Bacon have acquired a mass of gold from a previous bust, and then split the proceeds. Reynolds then grows a conscience and decides to hand his in, so Bacon kills him. It transpires that Bacon requires the gold for some previously unmentioned purpose, which begs the question: why didn’t Bacon kill Reynolds before they split the gold? He spends the entire film attempting to recover Reynolds’ share, which could all have been avoided had Bacon thought about the plan at any stage.

19. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Bit of rollover stupidity here: we are, of course, talking about the eagles, which once again are summoned by Gandalf at the end of An Unexpected Journey. Gandalf, seemingly feeling the dwarves needed more of a challenge, gets them dropped off just in front of a forest infested with giant spiders, providing much of the challenge of The Desolation Of Smaug. If that’s not enough for you, don’t forget that Bilbo has a magic ring of invisibility which he keeps taking off at key moments. There is, at this stage, no suggestion of any consequence of using the ring for any length of time, so why ever take it off, or keep it secret from the dwarves? (Because the movie would be a lot shorter if he did keep it on.)

18. Oblivion

Oblivion

It’s refreshing to know that the future still holds the promise of advanced technology. Ignore the fact that the space shuttle programme has ended and that it’s going to take another thirteen years to build another railway between London and Birmingham, apparently in just four years we’ll be sending manned missions to space with technology to put people into suspended animation. The future’s bright indeed. Oblivion is one of those films that works a lot better if you don’t think about it to any great extent, otherwise you may find yourself asking questions such as how the Earth becomes so desolated that the 86th floor of the Empire State building is at ground level, why the aliens bothered cloning so many humans that looked identical, why those humans all retained the memories of their hosts or why the Scavs ever bother to hide from the clones as it serves no real purpose. It’s a great vision of the future, just not a hugely believable one.

17. White House Down

White House Down

White House Down commits a sin that so many other big blockbusters have committed in recent years, namely that the plans of the bad guy are heavily reliant on specific actions committed almost incidentally by others and leaves far too much to chance. Again, the reliance on tropes from earlier action movies such as Die Hard seems to fundamentally misunderstand how Die Hard’s bad guys had planned their heist to rely on much more certain responses and by keeping people in an enclosed location. But there’s plenty of more specific craziness on show: the techie brought in by the bad guys, Tyler, sets up a booby trap bomb in a corridor to ensure no-one escapes through a particular tunnel. He later wanders into that exact same tunnel and is destroyed by his own bomb, when there are any number of other less or equally risky options available to him.

16. Thor: The Dark World

Natalie Portman Chris Hemsworth

Thor sits in a unique place in the Marvel universe where magic is possible and we shouldn’t just rely on science. However, a relationship with geography would have been nice. Early on in the film, Jane and Darcy find a mysterious portal to who knows where in a warehouse in the London Docklands. Much later, Thor, Loki and Jane arrive on Svartalfheim for a confrontation with Dark Elf Malekith. They lose the confrontation and are stranded on the distant realm, only to subsequently discover that the other end of the London portal comes out in a cave about ten feet away. Svartalfheim must be really, really tiny.

15. Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass 2

Not going to dwell on this one, but the idea that a teenage girl who’s brutally murdered criminals and spent a good part of her adolescence as a vigilante would suddenly go weak at the knees and act like a complete idiot at the sight of Union J on the TV is somewhere in a suburb of Offensive City. There’s also the question of why, once his father has been murdered and Dave makes a promise never to wear the costume again, he’s so easily convinced to turn up for a confrontation in costume, given that his outfit has no special powers or properties and he breaks his promise totally needlessly.

14. Elysium

Elysium

Elysium’s problems are mostly focused on space travel. This runs throughout the film, from the idea of shooting down shuttles heading for the orbiting space platform using a rocket launcher from Earth – when the people of Elysium are so keep on keeping their world for themselves, surely they’d have some defences that Secretary Of Defence Delacourt could have tapped into? Or built some in secret on the platform? They’d have had a much better chance at shooting down the ships if they did – to the end of the film, where we see a small fleet of space ambulances head for Earth. There’s no reason anyone on Elysium would ever need them when every house has a magic healing bed, and they’ll take years to get round the number of people on Earth in need of their help. Still, at least Matt Damon didn’t die in vain.

13. The Purge

The Purge

Basic plot failing here: apparently in the America of the future, everyone lives lovely happy lives as long as they can murder, rape and pillage to their hearts’ content once a year. But they don’t get to do it to anyone really important, and everyone’s fine with that. Riiiiight. Apparently, you also can’t stress the deadliness of this situation enough to your children, as despite everyone in the world being allowed to murder you without consequence, the moment someone turns up on your doorstep in trouble, your child is likely to open the doors and let them in. I suggest killing the children when the Purge starts to avoid any such future problem. Don’t also expend too much thought on why people intent on killing you without the possibility of justice or retribution would bother with wearing masks.

12. Fast And Furious 6

Fast And Furious 6

The sixth entry in the Fast Furious Franchise has been somewhat overshadowed by the tragic and untimely death of Paul Walker. The general enjoyment of the last two entries are a fitting tribute to Walker, and it seems almost churlish now to raise the issues of illegal street racing in central London, where police officers routinely roam the streets firing machine guns from moving vehicles, or where apparently you can leap off a moving vehicle and catch someone in mid-air. But possibly one of the most famous pieces of movie non-thinking this year occurred with the climactic runway scene, which internet boffins estimate was somewhere between 25 and 30 miles long, or about two-thirds of the distance from Manchester to Liverpool. Genius.

11. This Is 40

This Is 40

Approaching the age at which life it supposed to begin? They you too, I’m sure, will appreciate this story of two attractive and successful people who are worried about entering their fortieth year despite having attractive children and no real problems,  ho even when their businesses get into trouble spend money with abandon and whose plan to recover one of those businesses is to sign world famous recording artist Ryan Adams to that failing business. It’s also slightly mystifying as to why no-one, at any point, points out how utterly ungrateful these people are for everything they have to their faces and promptly disowns them. (If they’d like a volunteer, more than happy to oblige.)

10. Bullet To The Head

Bullet To The Head

So, you’re a world class hitman (called Bobo, for unfathomable reasons) and you’re on your latest job. There’s a dodgy politician that you need to murder, except when you’ve killed him you discover a material witness in the form of a prostitute in the apartment. So you decide to leave her alive so that she can identify you to the authorities, but thankfully you recognise that despite being required to sell her body for sex she’s also a woman of honour who will tell the authorities it was a hit, but thankfully won’t identify you in person. This will later provide a valuable lesson for Bobo’s crushingly naive police office partner, who will effectively offer the same service of non-naming when several people are killed in a violent shoot-out / antique axe fight. Good work, Bobo.

9. Promised Land

Promised Land

Promised Land is a worthy film on the subject of fracking, and it would have brought it to light in an admirable way had it not been for the condescending attitude to the audience, where the reasons why fracking might be bad are explained to the audience using a class of schoolchildren as a proxy. Maybe they’d assumed the intelligence level of the audience would be around that of the fracking company, who employ an “environmentalist” (John Kraskinski) to dupe their other employee, Matt Damon, into discrediting the environmental movement. When Matt Damon finds out he’s been duped, he then tells the town not to sign up. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Matt Damon in on the plan, so that he doesn’t blow the whole plan when he finds out? Or, if he’s not that trustworthy, to send one of the thousands of other employees of the company to take that role?

8. Escape Plan

Escape Plan

If you’ve ever seen Face / Off, you’ll know that Nicolas Cage is incarcerated in a dangerous futuristic prison that turns out to be set on an oil rig. In a cunning twist on that particular set piece, Escape Plan is set on a dangerous futuristic prison that turns out to be set… wait for it… on a giant container ship! Incroyable. The only thing is, this comes as a surprise to the residents of the ship when they attempt to escape. Guess the designers of the prison must have worked out to get a ship not to move about at all in water. They also managed to design a prison where all of the cells are transparent to prevent prisoners getting up to no good, but where solitary confinement is darkened cells with only tiny security cameras to enable prisoners to make easier escape attempts once there. And, for people that seemingly go out of their way to attract attention, both Arnie and Sly have managed to conceal their identities, despite Stallone spending a career working in the same industry and despite Arnie actually being his own boss for reasons that don’t make a lick of sense.

7. Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Putting the four year futuristic spurt of Oblivion to shame, Pacific Rim begins in 2013, where humanity comes under attack from giant monsters from under the sea. Our almost-in-the-past-already-future-selves face attack from these giant beasties who can destroy buildings with a single swipe, so respond by building massive robots which require two neurally linked pilots to operate. (I look forward to that technological innovation in the next year or so.) After ten years of failing to defeat the sea-dwelling monsters with their giant robots, humanity gives up and their plan is to build a 300 foot high wall along the entire length of the Pacific Ocean coast. Presumably while the monsters sit and wait the several hundred years it will take to finish.

But fear not; humanity is evolving to deal with the Kaiju threat – at least, if Ron Perlman’s Chau is any indication, having been eaten by a baby Kaiju before hacking his way out of its belly in the film’s closing moment. If we can survive being eaten and not having oxygen, maybe there’s hope for humanity after all! Maybe these new found abilities will help them build the wall faster if the aliens come back.

6. Gravity

Gravity

Space. The final frontier. A frontier as crowded as the only town on “Get Your Free Gold” day, judging by Gravity, which manages to position a telescope and two space stations in the same orbit and within barely a mile of each other. Maybe it’s just the best spot to be in orbit, safe from all that debris which also manages to be in exactly the same horizontal and vertical plane as the telescope and the two space stations. Maybe the intention is that those space stations are available for everyone, because it seems really easy to fly them; unlike when you get a hire car and it takes you half an hour to work out how to work the windscreen wipers, thankfully the Russians and the Chinese build their space stations in such a similar manner that any passing astronaut can work out how to get them going with just a quick flick through the manual. All of a sudden, space travel doesn’t seem that complex, does it?

5. Jack The Giant Slayer

Jack The Giant Slayer

This retelling of the Jack And The Beanstalk manages to walk straight into all of the narrative problems of its source material – only one set of magic beans, giant that manages to get painfully outwitted by a small person or two – but tops them off with a collection of further, brand new issues, such as why the giants choose this particular moment after so long to attack the world below, why they haven’t come up with a better attack plan if they’re so keen to overthrow the world below. We should all hope they never come up with that plan, as apparently the giant’s kingdom is in the sky right above us, as indicated by the crown of the film now residing in the modern day Town Of London. Yes, apparently giants are still living in the sky above us, and that’s why it’s always cloudy in this country. Whatever.

4. About Time

About Time

Don’t get me wrong, time travel is notoriously difficult to keep straight in films; my all-time favourite (Back To The Future) isn’t exactly perfect on that front, but it does have a relative amount of internal consistency. The same can’t be said for Richard Curtis’ time travel shenanigans, which involve men in a family who can travel in time going into a cupboard and clenching their fists, before sometime arriving back in time in that cupboard and sometimes not, and then sometimes going back to the future in the same method and sometimes reliving life from the point of emerging from the cupboard originally, and somehow never managing to create two people in the past. Remarkably, if you weren’t in the cupboard in the past, you (sometimes) end up in the nearest available cupboard when you travel back. Only the men can travel in time, unless a woman is holding hands with a man, which seemingly the men know instinctively will work without ever being told, and you can only travel within your own lifetime and backwards, unless you travel backwards in your life, at which point you can then travel forwards to the point you travelled back from. With me so far?

If you travel back before your children were born, you will completely and irrevocably change the nature of those children, but you can then travel back again and undo this and put your child back as it was, because in some fashion time travel affects which sperm and egg gets fertilised and with enough time travel you can eventually find a way to revert this process if you get it wrong. You can also avoid this if you travel in time with your father, which will have no effect on the nature of that process. Apparently all of the men in the family can time travel, but no man’s temporal interference ever has any appreciable effect on the life of any other member of the family and none of them ever make any attempt to use their powers for good, such as preventing accidents or natural disasters or catching people from trees or learning the piano or punching Ned Ryerson.

3. After Earth

After Earth

Apparently if you want to train yourself to fight monsters who smell fear, the best thing to do is to take one of them on a spaceship with you so you can release it and fight it in an unpredictable environment. It’s a good job those monsters can only very specifically smell fear and not any other pheromones, or smells, or see anything, or hear anything, because then you can train people not to be afraid to the extent where they don’t give off these pheromones, rather than using the advanced technology to invent some form of clothing or spray that contains or suppresses pheromones. Don’t forget to transport these beasts on a ship that, when it crashes, will selectively keep all members of a family alive while killing everyone else.

Should you arrive on Earth, then be careful, because evolution will have accelerated (for some reason) to cause creatures to mutate in unexpected and unpredictable ways. The only upside of this will be giant condors who’ve become sentient enough to sacrifice themselves on your behalf should you run into trouble. Most of the other animals will have evolved specifically to become deadly to humans, despite the fact that all of the humans left because it got too dangerous. Should you have to fight the phereomone-smelling beast, then don’t worry: if you suddenly do work out how to stop feeling fear, any pheromones you have previously expelled will instantly disappear and the monster will suddenly be unable to find you, even if you’re fighting in a small, confined space. Anyway, good luck. You’re probably not going to need it, as the crew of the ship you crashed on almost certainly sent a mayday signal before you crashed, so don’t feel the need to send any additional distress calls.

2. Man Of Steel

Man Of Steel

If you’re a space-faring race and your world is in trouble, don’t worry about attempting to evacuate any significant number of the residents. Instead, hold trials and attempt to apportion blame and point fingers for what’s happening. Instead, send one child to a planet where he will have superhuman powers, but with any luck his adoptive parents will force him to keep his powers secret, even at the expense of their own lives if it comes to it. (They will most likely have no evidence that this secret getting out will cause any problems, even though everyone in their home town already knows about his powers and anyone of them could blab the secret at any time.) Also, don’t worry if an award-winning journalist tracks your son down and finds out his secret, no-one will believe her despite the fact she’s an award-winning journalist.

She might also arrive at your house and yell out your secret identity name while you’re in costume in the presence of the police, and the army might find your spaceship on your parents’ farm, but again no one concerned will ever put two and two together, or be bothered to reveal your identity if they do. Your son’s secret identity can also be concealed by wearing a pair of glasses, despite most of the staff of a major news organisation seeing him both with and without the glasses. You might want to be careful that the superpowers aren’t catching; the journalist will be able to wander around in sub-zero temperatures in a thin coat and be struck with superweapons that cause your son to bleed and will survive quite happily, not to mention avoiding being sucked into a black hole, suggesting that she has caught superpowers. You might also find that editors of newspapers suddenly develop the ability to outrun falling skyscrapers.

Your son will then be able to take the confidence in his abilities and the fact that no-one can see through the world’s most basic disguise, and use his powers for good. Well, mostly good. (This is despite the fact that his powers evolved slowly and painfully over the course of his adolescence, and the powers of other adult Kryptonians will work immediately as soon as they arrive on the planet.) Should your son be required to kill one of these, make sure he knows that they will be unable to move their eyeballs as soon as he has them in a stranglehold, that could come in useful if he’s attempting to kill innocent bystanders with laser vision and almost succeeds.

Contrary to the views of Richard Lester, it’s not necessary to lure those Kryptonians to a secluded location before removing their powers and then casually and brutally killing them, as in Superman II; you can just break their necks in plain sight and people will still love you and not fear you for being a homicidal superbeing who kills your fellow Kryptonians rather than seeing them face justice. Also him fighting with those Kryptonians in a battle on Earth that causes massive destruction and loss of life also won’t have any bearing on his position in society, and nor will him casually shooting down expensive military equipment.

If you want your son to wear an outfit to draw attention to his superpowers, it may be best to put one on a spaceship that crashes on the same planet anything up to 18,000 years earlier, just in case. Also, the people of that world shouldn’t worry too much, as despite suffering few ill effects of their superpowers, the master plan of the Kryptonians will be to terraform the new planet to a replica of their own so that they don’t have superpowers any more. Outstanding.

1. Star Trek Into Darkness

Yes, I can't believe they're making us read this stuff either.
Yes, I can’t believe they’re making us read this stuff either.

Here follows the synopsis from Wikipedia for Star Trek Into Darkness, edited to highlight stupidity. Deep breath…

In 2259, the starship USS Enterprise is on a survey mission to the planet Nibiru, studying a primitive culture by hiding their spaceship in the sea where it shouldn’t be able to go, somehow getting the ship into the sea without the planet seeing yet not then being able to fly it out again without the planet seeing. Captain James T. Kirk and First Officer Spock attempt to save the planet’s inhabitants from a volcanic eruption, in the process breaking the Prime Directive of non-interference. When Spock’s life is endangered, Kirk violates the Prime Directive a second time in order to save him, even though he thinks it’s the first time, exposing the Enterprise to the native inhabitants, a decision with which Spock disagrees, although Spock hasn’t noticed that by now the Prime Directive has already been broken several times.

Returning to Earth, Kirk loses command of the Enterprise and Admiral Christopher Pike is reinstated as its commanding officer, because Starfleet ranks are given out like chocolates and last about as long. Pike manages to convince Admiral Alexander Marcus, who has models on his desk of a collection of starships, including a secret warship he’s building near Jupiter (yes, really), to allow Kirk to continue as his first officer on the Enterprise, rather than being sent back to the Academy, instead of being demoted to second officer or something, because apparently the only two choices of rank for Kirk are trainee or captain. Meanwhile, a secret Section 31 installation in London is bombed by a renegade Starfleet officer pointlessly calling himself Commander John Harrison. During a meeting of Starfleet commanders to discuss the situation convened in a building with poor security and ideally positioned for a full frontal assault, Harrison attacks in a jumpship, killing Pike. Kirk pointless risks his life and disables the jumpship, but Harrison uses a prototype portable transwarp transporter device to escape to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, knowing Starfleet would be unable to follow, and in the process rendering starships unnecessary by being able to transport himself effortlessly between planets. Meanwhile Spock does a mindmeld on the dying Pike to learn a cheap lesson about death he could have learned without invading the mind of a dying man.

Marcus orders the Enterprise to kill Harrison, arming them with 72 prototype photon torpedoes, shielded and untraceable to sensors, which should be suspicious as why would normal photon torpedoes not be enough to kill one man without a starship, but it’s apparently not. Chief engineer Montgomery Scott slightly overreacts and resigns his duties in protest when Kirk denies Scott’s entirely sensible request to examine the weapons for safety reasons. Pavel Chekov, who has never worked in engineering but occasionally operates the transporters, is promoted in his stead ahead of numerous better qualified engineers, and Dr. Carol Wallace, a weapons specialist, joins the crew, despite everyone knowing she’s really Carol Marcus because it was in the promotional material. Spock, Dr. Leonard McCoy and Uhura convince Kirk it would be better to capture Harrison and return him to Earth for trial, rather than killing him, because for some reason Kirk needs to be convinced of this as mild revenge has turned him into a homicidal maniac.

En route, the Enterprise suffers an unexpected coolant leak in the warp core, disabling the ship’s warp capabilities. Kirk leads a deniable operation to Kronos in a confiscated civilian vessel which doesn’t have a cloaking device, because this universe is no smarter than the last one in handing out cloaking technology, something apparently Starfleet doesn’t believe in apart from the time they gave the starship on Deep Space Nine a cloaking device. Approaching Harrison’s location, they are ambushed by Klingon patrols that don’t look like either the original or Next Generation Trek Klingons, and despite an episode of Enterprise – which exists in the same universe as this reboot – turning Klingons into the ones that look like the original Trek without the ridges. Harrison easily dispatches the Klingons, then unexpectedly surrenders after learning the exact number of torpedoes locked on his location. On the Enterprise, Wallace is revealed as Dr. Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, who inexplicably has an English accent when her dad sounds American, who along with McCoy, the chief medical officer and apparently the only other person spare to disarm a dangerous bomb despite having less than no experience, opens a torpedo at the behest of Harrison, revealing a man in cryogenic stasis. At some point around this time, Carol Marcus also takes almost all of her clothes off because the writers thought if they gave the teenage boys a hard-on they wouldn’t notice how stupid the film was. They also filmed a scene with Benedict Cumberbatch taking his clothes off, but then cut it out, inadvertently making them look like chauvinist arseholes.

Harrison reveals his true identity as Khan, because that wasn’t explained in the promotional material yet still didn’t come as a surprise, in a scene where he acts everyone else off screen and makes you wish Martin Freeman was playing Spock. Khan explains for the benefit of no-one except the crew that he’s a genetically engineered superhuman awoken by Admiral Marcus from a 300-year suspended animation, which apparently started in 1959 based on the current stardate, even though the original Star Trek put it at 1996 and this has to be the same Khan as it all happened before this universe branched off in the reboot. Khan reveals his crew was held hostage by Marcus to force him to develop weapons and warships for Starfleet in preparation for a war between the Federation and the Klingons, but doesn’t mention the cosmetic surgery that’s stopped him looking like Ricardo Montalban. Khan attempted to smuggle his crew out in the torpedoes he had designed, but was discovered. Thinking that Marcus had killed his crew, he instigated his attacks to avenge his family, rather than looking into it carefully before going on a mad revenge binge. Khan reveals Marcus had sabotaged the Enterprise‘s warp drive, intending for the Klingons to destroy the ship after firing the torpedoes at Kronos, giving him a casus belli for war. Acting on information from Khan, Kirk asks Scott to investigate a set of coordinates within the Solar System, because if you were building a top secret superweapon starship you’d do it in our own solar system, wouldn’t you?

The Enterprise travels from the Klingon homeworld to Earth in about three minutes, which should be around warp 9.99999999, but is intercepted by a larger Federation warship, the USS Vengeance under the command of Marcus. Marcus demands that Kirk deliver Khan, but Kirk refuses. The Enterprise, with a hastily conveniently repaired warp drive, flees the rest of the way to Earth to expose Marcus, however the Vengeance intercepts and disables it. Kirk offers to exchange Khan and the cryogenic pods in exchange for sparing the lives of his crew, because apparently the needs of the many Starfleet officers outweigh the needs of the many supersoldiers from 1959 who might all be nice and nothing like Khan. Marcus refuses, transporting Carol to the Vengeance and ordering the Enterprise’s destruction.

The Vengeance suddenly loses power, having been sabotaged by Scott, who discovered and infiltrated the ship during his investigation, thanks to it being built just down the road from Earth where he was sulking like a spoiled child rather than attempting to continue to reason with his captain.. With the transporters down, Kirk and Khan, with the latter’s knowledge of the warship’s design, space-jump to the Vengeance, in a manner that looks exactly like the space jump from the last film and is consequently less exciting. Meanwhile, Spock contacts his older self on New Vulcan because the script writers are idiots and have no better way of making Khan seem dangerous, who informs him that Khan cannot be trusted. After capturing the bridge, Khan overpowers Kirk, Scott, and Carol, killing Marcus and seizing control of the Vengeance, but not killing the other officers yet. Apparently.

Khan demands from Spock the return of his crew in exchange for the three Enterprise officers. Spock complies, but surreptitiously removes Khan’s frozen crew and arms the warheads, despite the fact that torpedoes are matter and anti-matter explosives and you shouldn’t be able to transport anti-matter because established rules of the universe say you can’t, but apparently we don’t give a shit about them any more, and I forgot to mention that the whole film has developed a bit of a potty mouth in places. Khan betrays their agreement, critically damaging the Enterprise, however the Vengeance is in turn disabled following the detonation of the torpedoes, so it’s a good job they could be transported after all. With both starships powerless and caught in Earth’s gravity, despite being much higher up than anything in Gravity that was successfully in orbit, they begin to fall toward the surface, because gravity works in space, duh. Kirk enters the radioactive reactor chamber to realign the warp core, managing to kick it several times in the wrong direction until it inexplicably slots into place, saving the ship at the cost of his life. Kirk’s death sends Spock into a rage, in a manner identical to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, except with the two main characters switched round. For f***’s sake.

Khan defiantly crashes the Vengeance into San Francisco to destroy Starfleet headquarters, brutally killing thousands of people in a manner subsequently glossed over entirely. Khan survives the crash and flees the scene, and Spock transports down in pursuit, because you can apparently transport things down but not up at this point. While experimenting on a dead tribble, because there are no bombs to be diffusing by sheer luck at this point, McCoy discovers that Khan’s blood has regenerative properties that may save Kirk, including restarting circulation in dead creatures so that the blood works, because the writers stopped caring about an hour ago. Spock, with Uhura’s help, is able to subdue and capture Khan (and Kirk is revived in an entirely unsurprising fashion because it was signposted so dramatically expect the writers expected us to feel something about Kirk’s death which is the biggest insult yet to our intelligence) at which point we now have a magic cure for death and the crew should be immortal. About one year later, Kirk addresses a gathering memorializing the events, where he recites the “where no man has gone before” monologue. Khan is resealed in his cryogenic pod and stored with his crew, in a way that’s not at all likely to see him quickly revived and reunited with them in a future film, probably the next one as we’ve had to revive Khan only two movies in because we’re that short of new ideas, unless they do the one with the whales next, while Carol joins the crew of a recommissioned Enterprise, and will probably be made to wear Counselor Troi’s cast-offs from the Next Generation as she’s a hot girl and look at her and gawp, as it departs on a five-year exploratory mission, which is what we thought they were doing last time.

In two years time, the man who helped ruin this simply because he liked Star Wars and this was the nearest equivalent in production will release an actual Star Wars film based on a story treatment from the man who ruined the last three Star Wars films. Beam me up, Scotty.

An Open Letter To Anyone Who’ll Listen In Response To The Competition Commission’s Open Letter To Me

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This is a long post. I apologise again, but feel the need to be thorough. I will try to summarise at the end if you want to skip to that. Probably after a picture of a kitten or something. If you’re going to read the whole thing, no-one would blame you for getting a cup of tea, then coming back. People have written shorter dissertations than this.

On Monday, around two weeks after it loses the legal ability to make any material difference, the Competition Commission finally issued a response to the questions that I and many others had been asking them since a day after they published their initial report on the 20th August. That date now feels a lifetime ago, and so much has happened since, that it’s starting to become increasingly difficult to disentangle the truth of the situation from the many arguments and counterarguments that have raged ever since. And by arguments, I mean the views of the general public, several MPs, an MEP, at least two Lords, the most significant independent film body in this country and several key members of the film and film journalism communities, and by counterarguments I mean the position of the Competition Commission and my local MP, James Paice, who to this date is still quite literally the only person to have agreed in any way with the Commission’s findings. If you find any more, please let me know, I’m still looking.

So let’s get something clear. In all of this, I still believe that the Commission genuinely believe they are acting in the best interests of the general public. I still think they believe that if they had not acted, that consumers would have been left at risk of a price increase. Not an actual price increase, mind you, a risk of a price increase. Those that know me and have read this blog regularly will know that I’m fond of analogies, and the only suitable one I can think of is trepanning. Sure, there are reasons and occasions why this may be a legitimate and necessary medical procedure, but you shouldn’t go drilling a hole in the head of everyone who’s got a headache; you’re liable to do far more more harm than good. I remain resolutely of the belief that the proposed course of action here will do far more harm, and is far more likely – in fact, guaranteed – to drive up prices, reduce choice and remove the quality of service, than the substantial lessening of competiton ever would have done, and I’m almost more frustrated that the Commission can’t see that than their inability to distinguish on markets.

I’ve tried to remain professional through all this, despite having had to attempt to understand hundreds of pages of documents in a short space of time, many of it written in a legal speak to which I am entirely unfamiliar, in the face of a group of people who to outside observers have seemingly gone as far out of their way as possible not to understand the arguments being made to them, and clinging resolutely to their single defence and line of argument. I am now going to attempt to respond to the points made by the Commission yesterday, and in doing so I apologise in advance if that professional demeanour slips just occasionally, as it nearly did in the title of this post. (Also, dear reader, you keep having the patience to read this stuff, so I’m sure you’ll understand my need to make this as easily readable as possible.) Finally, I’m using edited sections of the full letter here; please refer to the full letter if you need further clarity – it might be worth reading it in full first before you read this if you haven’t – and if you feel I have misconstrued any of the Commission’s points by the edits I’ve taken, please let me know, as my intention is to try to clarify my thinking, not to cloud theirs. Portions of the Commission’s letter are in italics for clarity, and any extracts from the final report are in a smaller font.

Here goes.

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A Request For The Competition Commission To Explain Basic Economics To Me

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It’s been four days since the Competition Commission published its final report and since then those who find the decision baffling or unprincipled, including myself, have been on the campaign trail. On Wednesday a group of protesters gathered outside the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse to protest the decision, with the local media in attendance. Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, also attended and has now started his own petition as a wider protest against the action and inaction of the Commission, which you can sign here.

Mr Huppert then raised the issue in Parliament on Thursday, and received this response from Andrew Lansley, another Cambridgeshire MP and also Leader Of The House:

“The Competition Commission’s job is to identify markets and act to restrict monopoly in the markets it identifies… I do not think this is the same market.”
“I feel the point [Mr Huppert] makes is a good one. Speaking purely personally and not for the government, I share with him his view that there is no case for the Competition Commission to seek to intervene in the ownership of the Arts Picturehouse.”

Except it already has intervened. As it presently stands, the Belmont in Aberdeen and the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds must be sold, and one of the two cinemas in Cambridge, which is a decision which Cineworld Group itself is allowed to make.

Julian Huppert is intending to speak to Vince Cable this week, but further activity is clearly required and those of us working to overturn this decision continue to explore all avenues, and will hopefully have further news on our next steps in the next couple of days.

But most of the debate this week has centred on the nature of what the cinemas offer, and the fact that they exist in different markets. When the initial report was published, the Commission published a large amount of detailed research they had conducted to determine the economics. I finally have some definitive research of my own to be able to publish.

Economics 1

Those four people in the right hand column are the members of the Commission’s panel on the Cineworld merger:

Alisdair Smith, deputy chairman of the Competition Commission, professor of economics at the University Of Sussex for thirty-two years.

Rosalind Hedley-Miller, managing director of Commerzbank AG, where she has worked for over 30 years.

Jon Stern, a founder member of the Centre for Competition and Regulatory Policy in the Department of Economics at City University London.

Jon Wotton, retired solicitor who during his career had a principal focus on EU and competition law, public procurement law and media regulation, and two years ago was the President of the Law Society Of England and Wales.

The first person in the left hand column is:

Mark Liversidge (me), call centre planning manager who has been helping to prepare call centre budgets for call centres of up to 3,000 people for over 10 years and who has a degree in mathematical sciences, and who visited 28 different cinemas in 2012.

So assume for one moment that the cinemas operate in the same markets, in the face of 14,108 people who believe they don’t. Actually, it should be at least 14,113, as in addition to those who signed the petition you can find letters here on the Commission’s own website from Lord Puttnam and David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films, stating that these are separate markets and that judging them in the same market would be damaging to the industry as a whole. We also need to add the two MPs and also a Labour MEP for the East Of England.

For those keeping score, that’s a Lib Dem and a Conservative MP, a Labour MEP and a Labour member of the House Of Lords opposed to this on general principle. If you need any further evidence (really? OK), the BFI also wrote to the Commission here, stating their concerns that consumer choice will be damaged by the proposed sale. In the interests of balance for the other column, the final report has three other organisations who support the commission’s views: Cineworld’s competitors.

By contrast, Vue and Odeon did not draw such clear distinctions between the positioning of multiplexes and independent cinemas. Odeon told us that it was constantly evolving its cinema offer and attempting to ensure that each cinema catered for the widest demographic and taste and gave examples of refurbishments and upgrades it had carried out to meet specific needs. Vue stated that ‘a cinema is a cinema’. These views were echoed by Curzon: it believed that there was a large overlap between cinema types, with 60 per cent of customers willing to go both to multiplexes and independent cinemas.

The problem with this definition is that an independent cinema is defined purely as a cinema with less than five screens, not what most people would describe as an art house cinema. Based on every single documented criteria except price, a clear divide emerges between Picturehouse and other art house cinemas and all of those listed above, including Curzon to a certain extent. It’s also worth noting that Odeon support the findings, but also claim that the same finding should have been made about Southampton, Brighton and Greenwich as well (letter in the same link as the BFI link). They already operate in each of those areas, so wouldn’t be looking to take on a cinema in those areas, but presumably one less cinema in each area wouldn’t harm their current operations. [EDIT: While I am not suggesting their lack of understanding of the market is anything other than innocent, it should at least concern customers that they don’t understand what Picturehouse offers to differentiate itself and may be poorly positioned to replicate it.] But I digress.

Let’s assume that these cinemas are in competition. The Commission’s process consisted of two things: conducting a survey with a large sample of customers, both members and non-members, and then asked them a series of questions to determine what they’d do in the event of various scenarios, including both Cineworld and Picturehouse raising their prices by 5%. They then looked at a calculation called the Gross Upwards Pricing Pressure Index, or the fantastically named GUPPI. The GUPPI is a measure of how much their margin, or profit, would increase based on customers swapping between Cineworlds and Picturehouses. The Commission’s argument is that, by owning two cinema chains, when prices went up the benefit of anyone switching cinemas would have previously gone to their competitors, but now Cineworld would reap some of the benefit.

I struggle to get my head round that without something to base it on, so I’ve produced a worked example. To keep the maths simple, I’ve taken a sample day – Thursday, in this case – and then looked at the pricing in the Cambridge cinemas on that day. I’ve also assumed that reductions for children, families and other special groups would apply in the same broad proportions, and assumed the Silver Screen isn’t running in Picturehouse that particular Thursday, and also excluded the surcharge for VIP seats that Vue levy. I feel safe in doing this as factoring them in would reduce Cineworld group’s turnover and margins, while increasing that of Vue, making this a best case position. So I’ve attempted to work out the turnover of each of the cinemas – the total for the two Cineworld Group cinemas and for Vue – for a typical Thursday.

Economics 2

So the Commission’s logic is that by raising prices, Cineworld Group get to keep more of the profits, and as there’s less competition, there’s less to stop them raising prices. They then get to keep more of the profits, so there’s a direct incentive for them to do it. Forcing the sale of one of the cinemas is designed to counteract that by retaining the same level of competition.

But does it work that way? In theory, Cineworld Group could raise its prices to any level, and the more they raise them the more they keep; but every single cinema operator when asked confirmed that there is a local level of pricing to which they must adhere, at least in part. Besides, the Commission’s research was based on a price increase of around 5%, so we have to assume that increase in our worked example. Let’s then see what happens if both Cineworld cinemas put their price up by 5%, and we then extrapolate the results using figures taken from the independent research company used by the Commission to gather data.

Economics 3

What’s happened here is that Cineworld’s turnover has gone down slightly, and Vue’s has gone up sharply. This might not be an issue for Cineworld in isolation – shareholders will generally take a favourable view if your turnover has decreased if you’ve managed to increase your profit – but to do so by handing an advantage to your direct competitor would be a lot less palatable.

So Cineworld have increased profit, but in the process they’ve reduced their overall attendance by around a quarter. This is then likely to have a further impact which doesn’t appear to have been accounted for in the calculation, although the report isn’t totally clear. Vue’s original submission indicated that 70% of their revenue comes from the box office receipts, 25% from food and concessions and 5% from advertising revenue. Assuming that a similar ratio holds for other operators, with attendances down by a quarter that will also reduce the concessions by a quarter – with no extra margin on them as the price wasn’t factored into the survey – and the cinemas will now be less appealing to advertisers.

What it appears the Commission have done is to conduct an incredibly valuable piece of market research for Cineworld Group, which indicates that a price rise of 5% will cause 30% of non-members / online bookers, or 24% of their total audience, to divert to their nearest rival or to stop coming completely. This would appear to be a strong and compelling argument to them not to raise their prices and effectively capping them to raising prices in line with the competition, and would suggest that not selling a cinema in Cambridge would still be effective in controlling prices.

But that scenario isn’t going to happen now, as one cinema must be sold. We can now be slightly more certain about the permutations of that outcome. If the Cineworld is sold, then it will be to another multiplex. The other three major chains charge the following prices in their cinemas nearest to Cambridge:

Economics 4So for customers paying on the day, Empire would be cheaper. Showcase offer a free Insider scheme which gives discounts from Sunday evening to Tuesday evening inclusive, making Sunday evening and Monday cheaper than Cineworld. Odeon offer a points scheme which is the equivalent of one free film for every 12 seen at peak times. The customers set to lose out most significantly are the 8% of customers with Unlimited memberships, as there is no direct equivalent operating in any other chain at present, and currently that allows as many films as a customer can watch for £15.90 a month, unless they wish to travel to Huntingdon or Bury St. Edmunds.

From an economic standpoint, the potential Picturehouse sale is unsurprisingly more concerning. The Commission’s decision will force the cinema into doing what it isn’t currently, and competing on equal terms if it is to survive. Except when your cinema is in the city centre in an older building with higher running costs – a reason quoted by Vue as to why they had no interest in taking over Picturehouses – then your margins will be lower before you start. Given that the new owners will only have a capacity of 512 seats against the 1,700+ competitors in the city, any hope of showing more diverse films will be lost. In Norwich, the smaller independent cinema, run by the Hollywood chain, attempts to compete against three chains (Odeon, Vue and Picturehouse) and has to charge around £2 less than any of them. Lower running costs will make margins yet more precarious and any services such as the bar which add to the running costs may need to be dispensed with to protect enough profit to run the business as a going concern. In 2010 another Hollywood cinema failed, and was rescued by Picturehouses in – you guessed it – Bury St. Edmunds.

Bury St. Edmunds is the one area with no competition, but the findings of the original survey did demonstrate that for full price paying customers, 15% of Cineworld customers would switch to a competitor or stop coming completely on a 5% price increase and 2% of Picturehouse customers would make a similar decision. Notably, the 11% looking for another cinema would most likely end up at the Vue in Cambridge, the nearest competitive multiplex. Even with no direct competition in the immediate area, it would be to Cineworld group’s financial detriment to put up prices. So setting aside the discussions of programming, it would appear that the better option from an economic standpoint would be to not sell the cinemas, based on the Commission’s research. But that’s just my view, based on calculations and estimates I’ve had to make without the benefit of confidential information removed from the reports. It must be wrong, because the only reason this is happening is that this is supposed to be in the customer interest, but the most likely option to control costs and protect choice appears to be not doing anything.

But I’m just a lowly cinema buff, with only a statistics background and a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of business. I invite someone – anyone – whether it be the Competition Commission members, with their combined experience of over 100 years, or indeed any member of the public, to highlight the flaw in my thinking or my numbers, because this is only going ahead on the basis of increasing competition and in turn controlling costs. If the numbers don’t stack up, then surely this decision has to be set aside or overturned?

The Price Is Right (Shame About The Venue)

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Come on down! Plebs need not apply.
Come on down! Plebs need not apply.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate my Twitter feed for a number of things: I’ve met people and made new acquaintances, both physical and virtual, it’s allowed me to articulate the general insanity of my inner monologue in a way that people cannot ignore – apart from all the ones that blocked me or reported me for spam – and it’s generally the first thing to alert me to the important events of life, which these days are a mixture of instant tributes to famous people dying or details of new food products. What it was full of today was a succession of people expressing their views about the two decisions made regarding press screenings for the London Film Festival.

If you don’t follow a large selection of people who are either professional journalists or hardcore bloggers, then you’ll have missed a day’s worth of indignation of various levels of righteousness. The two decisions announced today are that: (1) rather than having this privilege for free, anyone wishing to see press screenings will need to pay £36 for said privilege, and (2) that the press screenings have been moved to the Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue in the Trocadero. One of these decisions is a non-story and one is a travesty, and you can probably guess my views on both.

In case you can’t, then Twitter has had plenty of views of its own. The general consensus on the former seems to be that it’s only doing what other festivals already do, that the BFI is a charity and not a profit-making organisation, that anyone working as a journalist probably ought to claim this back and anyone else should consider themselves lucky to get such a large amount of entertainment for such a small amount of money, given that from what I can tell they have no documented commitment to write reviews for everything they see off the back of it. By general consensus, I mean that of those people I happen to agree with, of course. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, and when it all comes down to it whether or not a bunch of people who would probably run over hot coals if it meant seeing some decent films might have to pay the price of a moderate night out for two weeks of previews, it’s probably of little consequence.

What’s more disturbing is that, of all of the fine and varied cinemas in the West End, the BFI have chosen what’s widely considered as the worst cinema in London to host press screenings this year. I would possibly dispute the worst label – last time I was in the Odeon Panton St, it smelled heavily of pee, and I’m just glad the film was only an hour and a half – but I can testify from personal experience that quality of a Cineworld is inversely proportional to its distance from Piccadilly Circus. I’ve been to them as far north as Runcorn and St. Helens, and as long as you stay outside the M25 they’re pretty decent. By the time you get to the likes of Enfield or West India Quay, the seats are lumpy and / or hard, the projection’s occasionally iffy and security guards have to regularly circle the screenings. By the time you get to Haymarket or Shaftesbury Avenue, the screens are scratched, the seats are atrocious and a standard Cineworld card just won’t cut it.

There’s an easy solution to this – spend all of the money from the subs on tarting up that dive in the Trocadero – but that’s not likely to happen. Still, the purist in me would like those arbitrating on whether or not Joe Public should part with upwards of £15 a ticket for the actual festival to not be distracted by the poor quality of the surroundings that they’re having to watch the films in. It’s also made me think about how much money I invest into the production of this blog. I moderate comments on the blog, simply in an effort to filter spam, but the only time I rejected a comment was when someone accused me of being a wannabe film journalist. What I’ve actually done is attempt to channel my passion for, and extensive spending on, cinema into something more productive by helping others to filter the cinematic wheat from the movie chaff.

This was brought home to me most clearly on a visit here, while working away:

Reel Cinema PlymouthThe Reel Cinema in Plymouth, seen here in 2008, and very much looking like it does today, although the paint is a little more flaky and the stair carpet a little more worn. Some of the fixtures and fittings may pre-date me, and that’s saying something, but the staff were friendly, the concessions reasonable, and I could even overlook the fact that I was sat at an odd angle to the screen as it wasn’t the same width as the seating when I discovered that the Wednesday night special ticket that I purchased was £3.40. That wouldn’t even buy you a scoop of Pick ‘N’ Mix in the West End.

I like to delude myself into thinking that I get reasonable value for money, but by sheer volume cinema is still a heavy investment for me. Last year I saw 200 films, around half of which were thanks to my CIneworld card – around £180 for the year – and I also did FrightFest for a day (£54), an all-nighter (£30), forty-two films at the Cambridge film festival (somewhere around £200), plus my memberships for the Picturehouse chain and the Prince Charles Cinema and the other forty or so tickets I paid for in cinemas across the land with no membership at an average of around £9 a pop. I make that around £850 – 900, and that’s without food or travel to any of the venues. You could get a decent car or a weekend break or two for that sort of money, but I plough it into my hobby for the sheer love of it. (It would also explain why I’ve never got any money.)

And that’s what it all comes back to – that, and indeed this blog, are ultimately a hobby. I could never see myself applying for accreditation for writing this, even if I have as The Movie Evangelist churned out 450 posts at an average of 1,000 words a time (that’s the equivalent of around five novels in the past three and a bit years) in the name of trying to encourage you, the reader, to see your films in a cinema. Somehow the fact that this is just a part time undertaking has always made me feel that even applying for such a thing – with the likely suspicion I’d be turned down anyway – would be a bit of a cheat, especially as each of my reviews now reflect on the cinema experience, and if I’m not doing that as a paying punter, it all becomes a bit pointless. That unwillingness to apply for accreditation either makes me (a) wonderfully principled, (b) hopelessly naive, (c) really not especially clued up as to how I should go about writing a film blog or (d) all of the above. Either way, I’ll see you in the stalls with my full price ticket come the festival. The Movie Evangelist – reassuringly expensive.