The Bens 2013

Being my awards in various categories for movies watched during 2012. It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. See here for the full list of contenders.

Best movie

Winner: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It wins for many reasons, not least doing a good job of compressing the plot that the BBC took 6 episodes to relate into a couple of hours, and also of making it plainer. Sadly I already knew who the Circus mole is (again, having seen the Beeb version) but I understood better how the apparently unrelated stories of Jim Prideaux and Ricky’s Russian girlfriend all fit together with the secret Witchcraft thingy.

It was also a wonderful recreation of the seventies – I could almost smell the tobacco smoke arising from the impregnated fabrics.

Tintin is here for being a darn good Tintin adventure with an astonishing combination of lifelike CGI graphics that actually look like the artwork of a Tintin movie. Word-perfect casting for our hero and for Captain Haddock.

Skyfall … well, under most circumstances a Bond movie wouldn’t make the shortlist for this category, even though any direction from Quantum of Solace is up (bringing Roger Moore back would be about the only possible way of going further downhill). But it scores for taking the traditional Bond parameters and pushing them up to 11, at the same time as reaffirming some venerable Bond traditions. And for the very clever way two machine guns pointing in a fixed direction manage to spray enough bullets to bring down a dispersed crowd of hoodlums.

Best animation

Winner: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. See above for one reason why. Also, extra extra cudos for fidelity to the original. So often a movie recreation of a childhood friend loses all the magic. This wasn’t an updating or a re-imagining that completely misses the point of why the original is so fondly remembered (looking at  you, Thunderbirds). No, it was a Tintin adventure. Done for the cinema. An expert merging of media that played to the strengths and the requirements of both.

The Pirates! also scores in a less flattering category – see below. But an Aardman animation is never less than excellent, at least in technical terms.

Rio – well, Rio was fun. CGI, yeah; brain candy, yeah; but fun.

Best offbeat indie thingy

Winner: Dean Spanley. Two of these I had never heard of before and this is one. We only watched because it was New Year’s Day and the TV was still on following the concert from Vienna. Father/son bonding as Edwardian Englishmen, rather than Hollywood, would do it, with wonderfully understated roles for Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill, of whom see more below.

The other I hadn’t heard of is A Serious Man, a Coen Brothers movie set in 1950s mid-America and based loosely on the story of Job. Funny, offbeat, and an underplayed ending that seems like a sudden anticlimax, then becomes suddenly chilling when you remember what happened to Job’s children.

Margin Call is a gripping tale, strongly overlapping with reality, of a New York finance firm realising it is way too over-exposed and dumping its toxic assets … and incidentally triggering a financial crisis, and knowing that will happen, but doing it anyway because a firm’s job is to protect itself, not the world. A great cast including Kevin Spacey, Spock Jr, Dr Maturin and Jeremy Irons, and if it weren’t for Dean Spanley it would be the clear winner.

Best actor

  • Sam Neill – Dean Spanley
  • Nigel – Rio
  • Al Pacino – Glengarry Glen Ross

Winner: Sam Neill. Neill is usually seen with a knowing/knowledgeable/smart-ass (delete according to role) smirk, but it is completely absent from this. Instead we get a po-faced, dignified clergyman with a taste for Tokay and a previous existence as a dog.

Nigel is the villain of Rio, an obnoxious, English cockatoo, with a great musical number about why he is so evil. Includes the line ““I poop on people and I blame it on seagulls!”

Al Pacino does Al Pacino – in this case a dodgy salesman who will stoop to anything, and I mean anything, to make his sale.

And now the offbeats …

Most unexpectedly good

Winner: The Sentinel. Michael Douglas achieves the almost impossible task of making us believe he actually could (still) be a Secret Service agent with the life of the US President in the palm of his hand. And Keifer Sutherland is pretty good too.

Most disappointing

Winner: Private Peaceful. There’s two, count ’em, two adaptations of Michael Morpurgo novels here: how did neither come to be much good? Especially this one. I was almost in tears at the end of the novel. The movie suffers badly from trying to be clever and making us think that two unjust executions are about to take place, rather than the one of the novel … and tying itself into knots to maintain the illusion, when all it had to do was stick to the story to get it right.

I’ve commented above on The Pirates! as an animation – and sadly that is all it has going for it. An Aardman animation is usually heart warming and fun too. This wasn’t. It almost dies of inertia in the first half hour.

Most Oh Good Grief Is It Still Going On?

Winner: The Hobbit. At least the other two weren’t actively padding just for the sake of having lots of cool 3D effects.

Best despite knowing how it would end, really

Winner: Young Adult. We all knew, didn’t we, really, that the seducer of virgins would turn out to be a bounder and a cad, and Clooney’s character would be an idol with feet of clay, and Charlise wouldn’t break up the guy’s happy marriage and would end up as sad and lonely and non-wise at the end as she was at the start. But Young Adult wins because, as well as Charlise’s performance, and some sly digs at the art of ghostwriting, we have fun with other characters along the way. A mature and grown-up look at what marriage is like between two adult, grown-up people who have put their pasts behind them.

Most actually I really didn’t see that coming

Winner: Looper. Well, I didn’t. The Descendants almost makes it, except that I had a strong feeling there would be a happy(ish) ending even if I couldn’t see what. But Looper – wow.

Does a Crime Commissioner get to commission crime?

I am all conflicted over tomorrow’s elections to the post of Police and Crime Commissioner.

On the one hand, I can see what is intended. It’s well meaning. On the other hand, looking at some of the candidates, I doubt that’s what we’ll get. It’s all a bit like New Labour policy or Catholic theology – as long as everyone acts precisely as the legislators intended, what could possibly go wrong?


On the one hand, a good friend who is in a Position to Know recently posted on Facebook exhorting everyone to spoil their ballot papers – a much more effective way of registering displeasure than just not turning up.

On the other hand, even if it does all turn out to be a colossal waste of time, it’s probably not going to go away so maybe should be engaged with.

At the weekend I heard an interview with a woman who expressed extreme frustration with the whole selection process, which she had found cumbersome and overly complicated. She  missed the deadline to apply by five minutes, whereupon she cried. I too hate overly complicated bureaucracy, but  if someone who is going to be reduced to tears can come within spitting distance of applying for this particular position then the process is already flawed.

My candidates might of course be made of tougher stuff, so let’s take a peek.

UKIP guy is right out. He has staring eyes and his statement talks about “bringing common-sense, fresh ideas, accountability and accessibility to the role”. I’ve been around long enough to know that people who talk about common sense as though it were a subjectively measurable quantity are nutjobs who think the Daily Mail is too woefully liberal.

One of the independents looks sweet enough. Her statement declares: “I have relevant, transferable skills having worked, as a front office cashier, teacher, insurance marketing executive, banker, software tester, Capacity Planner, Project Manager.” No, sweetie, you undoubtedly have skills and all power to your elbow, but they are not relevant and transferable to this particular position.

One of the LibDem candidates has been “22 years a Magistrate in Oxfordshire … Financial experience in the public, voluntary and private sectors, including running my own company … National experience of criminal justice system … Been a victim of crime, including a stabbing and several burglaries.” Now that’s more like it. That is pretty transferable, and I do like the way he slipped that last bit in, just to make it clear he’s not going to be soft on the ASBO brigade.

And yet, and yet …

Maybe I should have stood myself. Transferable skills? I  can mostly make Excel work, though conditional formatting is still a bit of a bugger. I would greatly ease the burden of the  bobby on the beat by making sure that all the paperwork was nicely designed and correctly formatted. I’ve watched a lot of The Bill and (many years ago) most of Juliet Bravo. The latter in particular taught me that dark evil can lurk at the heart of even the most idyllic RADA-populated rural communities. Sometimes you could even feel there are people who deliberately put the cats up the trees. It also taught me – along with the even older Z-Cars – that what any successful police force needs is a march-time theme song.

Theme songs. That’s it. I missed the boat this time, but come the next round of elections my theme will be up and running.

Still got to decide whether I’m voting tomorrow, though.

Ben and the Race Relations Act

Sunday’s episode of Inspector George Gently – I watch period police dramas, I can handle it, I could give up any time – said nothing new but still much that was worth saying about race relations in Britain in the 1960s. The most telling point for me was that the BBC news, immediately after, was read by a black man.

I don’t believe this country is yet an interracial paradise. I do think it’s doing much better than it was in 1960-whatnot.

I had a sheltered upbringing and I know it. I spent 10 years in private, boarding school education, where the skin colour was not 100% white but the exceptions tended to be people like the future King of Swaziland – not really representative of the streets of Brixton. I found Constable Savage funny for its absurdity more than its satire. I suppose my personal wake-up call to the tensions out there, that I had so far either blithely ignored or been happily sheltered from, was the riots of the early 1980s. I have to admit that when I read some of the aired grievances of the rioters, unlike my mostly Tory colleagues, I didn’t find them that unreasonable. I’d riot if the police could, and did, stop and question me every ten paces for being suspiciously white.

I freely admit to using a particular word to describe black people, quite routinely. It was in my everyday vocabulary. And yet. I can honestly say there was no intended malice, and when I learnt how offensive the word was, I stopped. And even then I could tell the difference between casually saying of a man of African ancestry that “he’s a $WORD_THAT_ONLY_SAMUEL_L_JACKSON_IS_ALLOWED_TO_USE”, purely for descriptive purposes, and sneering that “he’s a …” with the clear implication that the one word was all you needed to know about the individual. I could tell the difference between unintentional and deliberate offence, and I was offended by those who chose the latter.

I even remember being branded as a “$THAT_WORD-lover”, believe it or not. We lived in Bangladesh when I was aged 12-14. It was a pretty comfortable, privileged existence and it did not make me an authority on the problems of the Third World or give me any searing insights into race relations – but it gave me marginally more than many of my contemporaries had. And so, in one quite heated discussion – can’t remember what, or why, or when – that was the soubriquet I acquired. One boy even went to far as to write on my homework – shortly before it was due to be handed in – “Jeapes for $LA_LA_LA_CAN’T_HEAR-YOUs”. I tipp-exed it out. The teacher scraped the tipp-ex off to expose the message, and wrote in the margin, “don’t be childish, or, choose your friends with more care.”

The irony is that the boy in question was probably the most liberal of us all in other regards. He was proud that his barrister father only ever defended, never prosecuted, and was vehemently opposed to the death penalty.

I was never quite sure what to make of the historical rebranding of, say, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little $DUM_DE_DUMs or the name of Guy Gibson’s dog in The Dambusters, but China Miéville at a convention a few years ago put it well enough for me to come off the fence. Roughly, paraphrased: which is better, to preserve the historical purity of the original text, or to do what we can to remove that word from the ammunition of race hate? If one less kid gets called that word in the playground then by all means call the dog Trigger or Digger or whatever. If you really have to, mention the fact of the original usage in a footnote, and leave it there.

I’ve no idea where I’m going with this, so here’s Constable Savage again, to finish with.