Archive | February, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy: Q&A about “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”

27 Feb
Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen and director Peter Strickland at the Duke of Burgundy Q&A. Photo: Habie Schwarz

One of the most fascinating British films in some while is out now, and I caught a Q&A at the Curzon Soho with the director, Peter Strickland, and his leading lady, the fabulous Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame.

The Duke of Burgundy is most easily described as “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”, though any comparison with that film does The Duke of Burgundy a serious injustice. It’s beautifully shot, in saturated colours and at a leisurely, European pace, and though it is about an SM relationship between two women, there is no nudity, and the SM is figurative as well as literal: it’s about the shifts in power that occur in any relationship.

I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because it will spoil the film to know too much. But do go and see it (though perhaps not with your mother), as it’s a remarkable piece of work. No surprise, incidentally, to find Ben Wheatley on the Executive Producer credits. At the Q&A, the shy director was clutching a glass of whiskey and clearly roaring drunk, though still suprisingly coherent. The moderator said it’s the most Strickland has ever talked. The luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen was appropriately dressed for the occasion in fishnet stockings and burgundy-coloured velvet ankle boots. Here are the highlights:

Director Peter Strickland on the genesis of The Duke of Burgundy: “I met Andy Starke, the producer, who runs the DVD label Mondo Macabro with the wonderfully named Pete Tombs, when Pete wrote a book called Immoral Tales (on European sex and horror movies). We wanted to take some elements of Jess Franco films – female lovers, sado-masochism – but it ended up more as a domestic drama in the writing.

“It’s about SM on one level, but it could be any activity that one person finds distasteful, but that you go along with to keep the other person happy. It’s about the nature of compromise in a relationship.”

Duke of Burgundy 2

Mind games forever: Sidse Babett Knudsen and co-star Chiara D’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen: “The SM element came to me a bit late. I read the script and thought there were so many recognisable things in it about ‘Will I lose myself, my dignity?’ As to the lesbianism, Peter said he didn’t want a man and a woman because then it would be about a power game between the sexes. I took everything as figurative, a way of exaggerating things in a relationship.

“Peter told me that at the beginning he wanted it to seem like porn, like just bad acting, and then after ten minutes the audience realises [what’s really going on]. That was the scariest thing about doing the film, that deliberately bad acting!”

Strickland: “There was one screening where the audience walked out in the first ten minutes, and you want to go ‘Come back! Come back! It all changes!’

“I wanted it to be this fantastical world where there are no men – there’s a strange power shift if you put men in there – and where these niche tastes are the norm. I wanted to normalise it [the SM and lesbianism] because when you normalise it you don’t question it. Also these films always have a bloody back-story – a crack-addict mum or something to explain why they are as they are – but I didn’t want to go into the psychology. I just wanted to look at the dynamics of that relationship, that push-and-pull, where one person wants something that the other doesn’t.”

On getting an 18 certificate, despite the absence of nudity: “It is what it is, it’s their decision. I do find it odd that you can show mutilation and violence to a 15-year-old kid, but not two mutually consenting adults pleasuring each other.”

On whether he would ever “sell out” by doing ads or taking the Hollywood dollar: “The reason I live and make films in Hungary is because I can’t afford anywhere else. But I’m home-sick for England; and I’m not going to live in a one-bedroom flat paying all the money I have to a landlord just to please you fuckers!”

We’ll take that as a “yes”, then.

Peter Strickland’s films, including The Duke of Burgundy, are available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

British Poker Awards: Victoria Coren Mitchell wins, while I impress Jake Cody

24 Feb

Victoria Coren at her second EPT win which gave her Performance of the Year at the British Poker Awards

After the Oscars, on Sunday night, came the British Poker Awards, on the very next night, held in London’s Hippodrome Casino. Both, of course, are a celebration of hard work, craftsmanship, skill, perseverance and, above all, convincing acting. But whereas at the Oscars they have to strike up the band to close down the tearful acceptance speeches – and even then, this year director Pawel Pawlikowski famously continued regardless – poker players are not renowned for their public wit and native charisma.

“Just a little hint,” host Michael Caselli, the Editor-in-Chief of Bluff Europe Magazine, was reduced to saying in frustration, “if you’re nominated you might just want to think of preparing a little something to say.”

There was no such problem with TV/ radio presenter, writer and poker pro Victoria Coren Mitchell, however, which made it especially welcome that she walked home with no less than three awards. “I feel it’s a bit unfair because I have four different jobs and so I have more followers,” she said of her Social Media award and quarter-of-a-million-strong Twitter account. Caselli told her that the other nominees thought she was a worthy winner. “The other nominees are terrible, so it’s not surprising,” said Vicky, with what we trust was mean-the-opposite British banter. You don’t get that at the Oscars.

Victoria Coren Mitchell, pictured with Bluff Editor-in-Chief and host Michael Caselli, picks up Performance of the Year

Victoria Coren Mitchell, pictured with host Michael Caselli, picks up Performance of the Year

Victoria Coren Mitchell also won Poker Personality of the Year: “In 15 years I have never won a personality award,” she commented drily, “which given how much I talk means people have gone, ‘I have experienced your personality, and that’s a no.’”

And finally Vicky won Performance of the Year for winning the EPT Sanremo. In 2006 she had become the first woman to win the EPT main event; last year she became the first person to win it twice. “I played that tour like I do every other,” she said, “hoping I don’t get knocked out in the first 15 minutes like at EPT Coventry! I think I was the shortest stack from 24 players down to three. I never, ever, expect to do well. My goals in poker have been the same for 20 years: I hope to turn a nice profit, while vaguely being a nice person and not screwing people over too much.”

It’s as good a life philosophy as any, and got the biggest cheer of the night. I whooped louder than anyone: it was Victoria Coren Mitchell who introduced me to Texas Hold ‘Em, over ten years ago, when fellow journo Jon Ronson took me to her home game. I’ve been hooked ever since. You can read my interview with Victoria Coren Mitchell here.

Jake Cody, winner of Best Blogger

Jake Cody, winner of Best Blogger

But the night was far from over. There was still a 50-player freeroll, with top pros providing a bounty. Jake Cody, a man with over $4 million in tournament winnings to his name (and who won Best Blogger), was drawn on my table, and did the coolest thing I have ever seen a bounty celeb do. In two hours he played just two hands, both all-in. The first time I nearly called with A6 suited, but as they couldn’t tell me what the bounty actually was (“a goodie bag”) I couldn’t work out if it was a good play or not. On his next all-in, an hour later, I had pocket 10s with about three times his stack size, and called.

Jake turned over mathematically the very worst starting hand in poker: seven-deuce! That’s why he was taking his time. I can imagine him folding Aces, Kings, AK, going “Nope, too good, it’s unfair to knock some poor player out. I’ll wait for a truly awesomely terrible hand so they can claim the bounty.” My pocket 10s had him crushed, but Cody’s not the pro for nothing: he somehow got a 7 on the flop, followed by a 2 on the turn for two pair.

I still had a decent stack, however, big enough to make a cool play. I have 89 in the small blind. It’s limped round to me on the button, so I call. Four players in the hand, including one who is all-in for just under the 2k big blind. The flop is 4,10,J, with two hearts. I have an open-ended straight draw, so I call a 4k raise on the flop, as does the big blind. The turn is a scare card: the Ace of hearts. It might give someone a pair of Aces, or a heart flush. We all check. The river is no help. It’s checked to me again, so without hesitation I push my remaining stack into the centre: just 6k. The total pot is 20k, 12k of which is the side-pot — more than enough to make it worth stealing when I know the other two are weak.

The other two players dwell, and finally fold. The all-in turns over an Ace regretfully, saying, “I’m sure you have this crushed.” I smile and turn over my 8 high. “I only wanted to steal the side-pot,” I say, and rake in my 6k plus 12k.

“That’s a great move,” laughs Jake Cody. “Because of the all-in player and the size of the pot, the other players have to think it can never be a bluff. I’ll remember that one.”

Liv Boeree, proving leather trousers with zips are so a good look, picks up International Player for Daniel Negreanu

Liv Boeree, proving leather trousers with zips are so a good look, picks up International Player for Daniel Negreanu

And though I eventually bust out in 14th place with AK vs QJ (amazingly, not to former Full Tilt pro Sin Melin, who always seems to knock me out of these things), I am happy. I’ve played in tournaments against some of the world’s greatest poker pros – Gus Hansen, Liv Boeree, “Jesus” Ferguson, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Antonio Esfandiari – but I’ve never before impressed one.

Just one final word: during the night I got chatting to loads of great people, including the CCO of Ranking Hero, a new site that launched here in November as a social media hub for poker players, and the tournament director of the Redtooth pub poker league, which every May takes 100 amateur players to Vegas for the World Series. Both are to be commended for bringing the fun back to poker; check them out.

For the full list of British Poker Awards winners, see Bluff Europe Magazine.

Oscars 2015: Birdman soars, but Imitation Game moves

23 Feb
Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne at the 2015 Oscars, where he won best Actor

After months of jockeying for position, the Oscars had settled down to being a two-horse race between the two “B” movies, Boyhood and Birdman. The Globes gave no clue, since they split Best Picture into Comedy and Drama and honoured both films. Last night at the Academy Awards, Birdman emerged as the big winner with four of the big ones: best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography.

Boyhood had to make do with best supporting actress, which was no mean feat given that Meryl Streep was nominated in that category. Meryl took defeat more than graciously. When Patricia Arquette gave a speech thumping the tub for gender equality and equal pay for women (the hacked Sony emails having showed how culpable Hollywood was in this regard), Meryl whooped, pointed at the stage, and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like Meg Ryan in a restaurant.

Eddie Redmayne was named Best Actor, as had seemed certain. Though he is not the winner, really, according to Eddie himself, but “the custodian”. In an emotional speech where he seemed to teeter charmingly on the verge of complete meltdown, he said: “This belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS. It belongs to one exceptional family, Stephen, Jane, Jonathan and the Hawking children; and I will be its custodian.  And I promise you I will look after him, I will polish him, I will answer his beck and call and wait on him hand and foot.”

Redmayne was extraordinary in The Theory of Everything, and a worthy winner/custodian. But having seen Selma over the weekend, I am still scratching my head as to how David Oyelowo could not have been at least nominated, late screening tapes notwithstanding. With Redmayne you are admiring throughout of the exceptional craft in his acting. Oyelowo simply inhabits the role, to the extent that you forget entirely that you are watching an actor at all, rather than the Nobel peace prize-winning statesman who gave his life for the cause of equality. As host Neil Patrick Harris quipped when Oyelowo was cheered at the Oscars ceremony, “Oh, sure, now you like him.”

Julianne Moore finally won her long-deserved best Actress award, for Still Alice. In typical Oscar tradition, it took playing a character with a disability – Alzheimer’s – finally to nail it after four nominations. The other big winners of the night were The Grand Budapest Hotel, which came away with a raft of craft awards: production design, make-up, costume and score; and the little-indie-that-could, Whiplash, which took best editing, sound mixing and of course supporting actor for JK Simmons. The other big British movie, The Imitation Game, won best adapted screenplay, with a moving speech from writer Graham Moore that won a standing ovation from the audience:

“When I was 16 years old,” he said, “I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I am standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. Stay weird, stay different.”

And that’s the thing about the Oscars. They can seem empty and silly and glitzy and bland, and the run-up lasts for far too many months. But films are still the most powerful global means of expression of our age. They are our flickering campfire stories, our propaganda, our myths. They change minds, hearts and lives. And for one glorious, silly, moving night, on the stage of the Dolby Theater, it all comes together.

Comma wars: why the New Yorker is, plainly, wrong

20 Feb
The famous logo of the New Yorker, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary

The famous logo of the New Yorker, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary

A couple of friends suggested this morning that I read an article from the February 23 issue of the New Yorker entitled  “Holy Writ”, more catchily retitled for the internet as “Confessions of a Comma Queen”. They suggested it because I am a sub-editor and editor of 30 years’ standing. But they may not know that I am also a life-long fan of the New Yorker.

I grew up, in Canada, with the New Yorker landing on the front porch 47 times a year. At first I read it only for the cartoons, by Addams, and Steinberg, and Thurber. One of our two cats was named after a Thurber cartoon in which one of his hefty, domineering women berates a guilty hippopotamus, with a hat, shoe, and pipe lying near him on the ground, under the caption, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?”

On this cat’s first day in our home, he was chased under a chest of drawers by the proprietorial pre-resident cat. My father, entering the room to find just the one, triumphant cat visible, repeated that caption to him accusingly. The scaredy-cat was dubbed Dr. Millmoss thereafter.

It was not until my teens that I discovered the New Yorker’s writers, particularly Pauline Kael, who first introduced me to the alluring notion that there was such a profession as film critic; and that, if so, I coveted it. She was a wonderful writer, even if I did not always agree with her judgments. I recall that she demolished The Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I had loved at the time beyond measure, and took four pages in doing so. Having recently studied Hamlet for A-Level, I wondered to myself: “Doth the lady protest too much?”

I was gratified that the writer of this New Yorker piece on syntax, Mary Norris, who has worked for most of her life as a copy-editor for this most scrupulous of publications, commends the late critic for her punctiliousness. Norris’s piece was fascinating, and beautifully written; once again, however, I could not agree with it.

Norris submits that there are two camps in copy-editing: “Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure.”

She, and the New Yorker, subscribe to the second school. This, to me, is insanity.

Punctuation is the percussion of a sentence. Think of a drum kit, with its bass pedals and snares and high hats and toms: these are your commas, colons, semi-colons and rules. You can pay off a joke by using a rule, rather than comma, like the “boom-tish!” of a cymbal: “The copy-editor thought the proctologist fancied her – but he only wanted her for her colon.” Boom-tish!

Through it all the commas provide the rhythm, the underlying beat, and removing them – so long as the sense is not impaired – is an artistic and not a pedantic decision. Take this famous sentence by Jack Kerouac: “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” If you add a comma after “stars”, or “pop”, you destroy the crescendo.

Or consider this magnificent deployment of the full arsenal of commas, hyphens, colons and full stops: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” I can imagine Nabokov writing and rewriting these sentences, searching for the perfect rhythm. Remove the sub-clause “at three” and it no longer works.

Conversely, examine this clunky New Yorker sentence, quoted in the article, which Mary Norris defends: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” It’s hideous. By the time you have waded through the thicket of sub-clauses to reach the clearing of the sentence – the eccentric teachers – you have lost all interest. I would remove at least one comma: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” More likely I would reorder the sentence, thus: “When I was in high school in the nineteen-seventies, at Horace Mann in the Bronx, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.”

It is axiomatic to me that the best writing is that which can be read out loud with the greatest pleasure for both speaker and listener. This hits home particularly when you have children, to whom you read stories. It was a joy to discover that The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (note that CS Lewis eschews in his title the fussy serial or “Oxford” comma upon which the New Yorker insists), which I had adored as a child, was, as an adult, the most mellifluous of all books to read aloud.

A copy-editor’s job is to ensure that a piece of prose is accurate, comprehensible, and follows house style in order to avoid jarring inconsistencies between different authors. But to do so at the expense of rhythm, rather than to support it, seems to me plainly wrong-headed.

The Hippodrome poker classic: 5 tips on reaching the final table with terrible hands

17 Feb
Hippodrome classic final table

The final table at the PokerStars/Hippodrome Winter Classic tournament.

On Sunday I came seventh in the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome Winter Classic tournament for £1,600. Not as good as last year’s, in which I came third for £5,250, but I’m prouder of this result, because I really made the best of some marginal hands.

It was a two-day tournament, so I should by rights have been dealt every possible starting hand: Aces at least once (they should come every eight hours or so), AK three times. But no – my best pocket pair was Kings, just once, and the next best tens, just once. My highest Ace was AQ, just once.

So how did I go deep? This is the kind of creative play I’ve learned from playing cash at the PokerStars Live Lounge at the Hippodrome – I’m sharing in the hope that poker-playing readers will pick up some strategy tips:

  1. Sniffing out a bluff

I have 78 of clubs. The blinds are still low (500 on a starting stack of 25k), so I can afford to call a 1.5k raise. We’re four-handed when a scare flop comes 99Q with two spades and a diamond. Nothing there for me. It’s checked round. The turn is an 8, bringing a second diamond, and a pair for me. We all check to the initial button raiser, who bets 5k. The others fold, and I call with my bottom pair.

This is where it gets interesting. When I check the river of a 5 of diamonds, hoping I’ll be ahead on the showdown with my humble pair but knowing he may well have a pair of Queens, a higher pocket pair or even slow-played trips, the raiser makes it 12.5k.

Some people would fold automatically, but instead I think it through. The 5 of diamonds is actually a key card here, because it completes a backdoor flush and a 5-9 straight: both are hands I might have been drawing to when I called the turn. If he has a pair, or even if he was slow-playing trip 9s, there’s no way he’d value-bet that river. Why bet when he’s only getting called by a bigger hand? So he either has a monster – a house or at minimum a backdoor flush – or else he’s bluffing.

That’s what they call a “polarised” range. From listening to the guy talking to his neighbour, I know he’s a pro; therefore he is capable of bluffing for pretty nearly his whole stack. And he doesn’t “feel” strong.

If I call and get it wrong, I’m down to 7k – crippled. But if I get it right, I’ve nearly doubled up. I make the call. He had KJ for a failed gutshot, and the whole table gasps when I show just a pair of 8s.

Your take-home: if they are a pro player and you put them on a failed draw, you can call a river bet with a small pair. I’ve even done so with Queen high.

  1. Turning a draw into a bluff

I make one bluff early on when I float a tiny flop bet with air and a third suited card comes on the turn. I’ve been playing tight, so when I bet it, both players fold. Easy stuff. But there’s a more interesting bluff, as it relies strongly on a read:

I have Q8 of clubs in the small blind. There’s one limp, I call, and the big blind checks. The flop comes  Ace high, with two clubs for a flush draw. So of course I bet. The big blind calls.

The turn is a second Ace. I bet again. The big blind calls again. Weird. What’s he calling with? The flush draw maybe? In that case, mine is bigger. Has he hit a small pair? What gives me strength is that I know for sure he hasn’t got an Ace. And I know this, even though he has only just sat down at the table, simply because he has a card protector in front of him that says “Online Turbo Tournament Champion”. There is no way in hell that a guy like that with any kind of Ace in the big blind would not have raised pre-flop.

Yet another Ace comes on the river. Three Aces on the board! Any kind of pair now has made a house. Any Ace has now got quads. I only have Q high. I may even be ahead, though I still need to push him off a possible small pair. I bet convincingly small, less than half the pot. He folds, and everyone congratulates me on my “quad Aces”.  The big blind later admitted he was calling with 8 high, intending to bluff me later, but you can’t bluff a man who so obviously “has” quads!

Your take-home: Conversely, you can easily turn your own failed draw into a bluff, if you have a read that your opponent is weak.

  1. Turning bad position into good position

It’s day two of the tournament, and there’s a loose big-stack raising so often that he can’t have a hand each time. That kind of person you have to re-raise, never call. So when he raises my blind to 6.5k and I have AJ, I re-raise to 15k. He calls. Impulsively, I check in the dark. Why? Because he has position over me, and he’s an aggressive player. If I have to make a continuation bet on the flop, he can re-raise if he hits, or fold or float or bluff if he doesn’t, and I won’t know where I am. I want to keep the initiative, and keep him confused. It works. He frowns, baffled and off-balance.

The flop comes King high, all clubs, and he… checks. For all he knows, I have a flush, or AK; even an aggressive player would struggle to bluff that flop in the dark. Blissfully, the turn is a fourth club. I have none of this flop, but it doesn’t matter. Even with no information, I know he is less than 50% to hold a club in his two hole cards (less than 50%, because there are only 9 clubs left out of 46 unknown cards). But I do have information: he checked the all-club flop. Whereas I checked in the dark, so he learned nothing. So I am safe to bet here as though I have a club, and see him fold. That’s just what happens.

Your take-home: If there are four suited cards on the board, make a small river bet. Unless you are known as an aggressive, bluffing player, a bet of half or even a third of the pot gives you a greater than 50% chance of forcing a fold.

  1. Value-betting and bluffing at the same time

I have KJ unsuited in early position. Not a wonderful tournament hand in early position when the blinds are dangerously high, but one of the best I’ve seen all day, so I raise, and get two callers. The flop comes K high. Good. But when I bet, I get one call. There is a flush draw out there, but it doesn’t “feel” like he has one, it “feels” like he has a King. But what’s his kicker? It ought to be at least KJ, maybe KQ, to call a tight player raising from early position. The turn is a second 3. I check, he bets. I could give up now, but hell, I have top pair with a decent kicker. But I won’t raise, because he’s likely only folding with a worse kicker than mine. So I call. See what happens on the river.

The river is an Ace. Brilliant. If I’m right that he has a King, I can be sure he hasn’t got an Ace. This guy is wearing a baseball cap; he would definitely have re-raised AK pre-flop. So I instantly grasp that I can bet the Ace safely. And the fascinating thing about this bet is that it is at the same time a bluff and a value bet.

It’s a bluff because if he has KQ, I’m losing, and with KJ we’re chopping, but I have a good chance of pushing him off the hand by representing the Ace. It will make total sense to him that I should have one:  I raised pre-flop, made a continuation bet on the flop, check-called the turn when he showed strength, and then raised the river when the Ace came. So “of course” I spiked an Ace.

But it’s also a value bet, because if he has K10, or K9, which is possible for a guy wearing a baseball cap especially if they were suited, and he does somehow summon up the courage for a hero call, then I make extra money. He dwells ages, so I know he had some kind of King, before folding, cursing the river.

Your take-home: Always be prepared to change your tactics to adjust to new cards on each street.

  1. When all else fails, you do need a little luck!

My second best hand in the whole tournament is AQ, shortly after the bubble bursts. So when I finally get it, you’re damn right I re-raise it. Following a bet of 10k and one call, I make it 25k. They both call. The flop comes Queen high, with a 5 and a 4, no flush draw. Hallelujah! I bet 45k, and get one fold, and one very slow call from the shorter stack. He’s either very strong, with trips, and slow-playing it – a real possibility, though at least I can rule out two pairs – or he has a weaker Queen. Hard to tell from the betting action, but it no longer matters: he has only 65k left, with 170k already in the pot. I can’t fold.

So I’m jamming the turn whatever comes (it’s a 2), at which he snap-calls. Yep, he has pocket 5s for trips. Even a third Queen won’t help me, as it would give him a house. I’ll still have 100k left from the stack I’ve painstakingly built, but this sucks. And just then… a genuine miracle from the Poker Gods. The river is a 3, giving me a runner-runner straight.

I like to think this is karmic payback for my bad starting hands this weekend, or for all the times my Aces have been cracked by Kings or Queens in tournaments past. But really, it’s just the glorious, infuriating, crazy, random thing about poker. You can concentrate hard and make great reads and play your best game, but you’ll usually need some shot of dumb good luck, somewhere along the line, to reach the final table. It’s why we love poker and get furious with poker but keep coming back to it: it’s unpredictable and ever-changeable, with no two hands the same.

And what did I do to celebrate my eventual £1,600 final-table win, you might ask?

Well duh. I went straight back up to the PokerStars Live Lounge balcony to play for cash.

Jupiter Ascending: what went wrong for the Wachowskis?

10 Feb

Jupiter Ascending

The opening weekend for Jupiter Ascending has been dubbed by Variety an “embarrassing failure” which leaves the Wachowski siblings “at a career crossroads”. Their space opera cost $179 million to produce, and grossed just $19 million. By contrast, in the same weekend, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water made $56 million.

The film is a mess. I would like to say a glorious mess, but that’s a little too kind. Film blogger Joel Meadows describes it as “Star Wars directed by Liberace”, but it’s not even camply enjoyable in the manner of, say, The Fifth Element. I still enjoyed it, in a popcorn-munching, at a loose end on a Saturday night sort of way, but I couldn’t honestly recommend it.

I’ve been thinking about what went wrong, and how you would fix it, and I’ve decided it comes back to the absolute screenwriting basics: a) it is never clear in Jupiter Ascending what the protagonist’s goal is; b) the protagonist is a passive reactor to events for almost all the movie, becoming active only at the very climax.


It just goes to show that you can give Channing Tatum wings and magic flying boots, you can stick a blue-haired Japanese girl bounty hunter on a cool hover-scooter, you can have portals that collapse space-time, you can splice human DNA with crocodiles for your baddies, you can pour Mila Kunis into tight black leather trousers and have Eddie Redmayne elegantly chewing the $179 million scenery, but if you don’t follow those basic rules of screenwriting, no one is going to give two hypergalactic hoots about your story or, more damagingly still, your characters.

BAFTA night: Boyhood and Theory of Everything triumph

8 Feb

Boyhood, winner of Best Film at the BAFTAs

The curtain has just closed on a night of glitz, hits and wits at the Royal Opera House, and this year’s BAFTA winners are in.

No real upsets: The Theory of Everything wins Outstanding British Film, Best Adapted Screenplay and – duh – Best Actor in Eddie Redmayne (or “Ready Edmayne”, as host Stephen Fry called him). Boyhood wins Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film (Patricia Arquette). Julianne Moore got best Actress. I was sad not to see Mr Turner recognised for cinematography, especially after the BATAs’ snub for Mike Leigh in the director category (though they compensatedby giving him a Fellowship), but the one-take achievement of Birdman carried the day.

My own predictions have come true, for once: JK Simmons is Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash, a film I have written about a lot in the past; and Jack O’Connell, about whom I wrote “a star is born” when Starred Up was released, wins the Rising Star award from quite a strong crop this year.

The BAFTAs always seem more relaxed, less rehearsed than the Oscars. Eddie Redmayne in particular has not yet learned to be dull and reserved. Asked on the red carpet what the first film he ever saw was, he replied, “Willow – terrifying. I was so scared I kept pretending I needed the loo. My friend thought I had some sort of weird bladder issue.” Even in his acceptance speech, he began by recalling a previous BAFTA night on which he had decorated the wallpaper in an unusual way due to a bout of food poisoning.

Cuba Gooding Jr took exception at Stephen Fry asking for a kiss from Michael Keaton and not from him, and planted a big smacker on his mouth. Gooding Jr seemed genuinely a little dazed after. “You have very soft lips,” he interrupted himself to reminisce a minute later. The presenter of the Best Film award was announced as “Tom Fucking Cruise!” And Ralph Fiennes was funny throughout. “We love seeing you doing comedy” he was told of Grand Hotel Budapest, on the red carpet. “Thank you very much. I took it very seriously.” With only the merest hint of a wry smile to signpost the joke.

Oh, and I was glad to see the excellent Pride recognised for Outstanding British Debut. Writer Stephen Beresford said, “It took my 20 years to get anyone to agree with me that gay and lesbian activists and a mining dispute were the ingredients for a sure-fire comedy smash…” But he was right.

10 Ways Hollywood Looks After Loved Ones — From The Afterlife

7 Feb


At last! I’ve been asked to write a sequel. Not of one of my film scripts, admittedly, but of an article. Hot on the heels of The 11 Best Films About Life Insurance comes 10 Ways Hollywood Provides For Loved Ones From The Afterlife.

You wouldn’t have thought there was a whole sub-genre of Hollywood films that feature dead people belatedly caring for their families, but from Always to Ghost via PS I Love You there were way more than ten – I had to leave some out (many thanks to my friends in the Facebook hive mind for suggestions). It even includes Oscar nominee Michael Keaton in a film he must be hoping Academy members have forgotten – have you?

Click here to read the top ten.

Why vice is nice, but not when it’s Inherent

5 Feb
Joaquin Phoenix bogarts that butt in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix bogarts that butt in Inherent Vice

After Foxcatcher left me cold, here’s one that left me just baffled: Inherent Vice. I love everything Paul Thomas Anderson has made. Magnolia: magnificent. The Master: masterful. Let There Be Blood: bloody brilliant. He even managed to make a good Adam Sandler movie (Punch-Drunk Love).

But this…

It doesn’t help that Inherent Vice is from a novel by Thomas Pynchon. His books always seem as though they must have been a lot more fun to write than they are to read, and they are patently unadaptable. Cool stoner comedy can work – just look at The Big Lebowski – but I’m not positive this is even pitched as comedy. It’s certainly not funny.

The killing non-joke is that the entire movie is exposition. I’m not kidding – the entire movie consists of Joaquin Phoenix, wasted in both senses of the word as the stoner detective, going up to a succession of people and being talked at. Each one telling him some other thing about some other person we have no interest in and some other plot point that makes little sense and would hardly matter if it did.

It’s worse than that famous King Lear quote: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There’s not even any fury, and the sound is so bad you can hardly hear what Joaquin is saying half the time. Worse, you suspect that’s a blessing.

How it garnered any raves I have no idea. Please, someone out there – tell me you liked it. And tell me why. I genuinely want to know.