We love ya, tomorrow: Quvenzhané Wallis stars in the new remake of Annie, directed by Will Gluck
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Thrills, flops and hard knocks: films to watch this Christmas

Ryan Gilbey casts an eye over the Christmas fare.

One of the first shots in Birdman (15), in which the director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel) introduces a comic element in addition to his customary intensity, shows Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, in the dressing room of a Broadway theatre. He is preparing to star in a Raymond Carver adaptation after years of being known only for superhero movies. First, he must contend with the method madness of his celebrity co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).

Then there are the emotional demands of the women in Riggan’s life, including his volatile daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and his stoical star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who wonders aloud why she doesn’t have any self-respect (“You’re an actress, honey,” comes the reply). Riggan is being hounded by his old fictional alter ego “Birdman” for allowing the likes of Robert Downey Jr to steal his thunder (“That chump doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up!”). Oh, and he is also levitating in his underpants.

Daring works of art are often described as high-wire acts but in the case of Birdman this is no mere turn of phrase. The camera rises into the rafters; it barrels down hallways with the woozy confidence of a self-righteous drunk; it follows Riggan through the fizzing hubbub of Times Square, into a forest of multicoloured light bulbs in a liquor store and off the edges of rooftops. On the rare occasions that it pauses, you can still feel the energy buzzing in the lens, the way an overactive mind races even after the head hits the pillow. This is one of the most wide-awake movies ever made.

Its central conceit, achieved through digital trickery, is that the entire picture has been filmed in a single take. It hardly matters that this isn’t logistically possible: it lends the film a stream-of-consciousness momentum that makes it feel like a live-stream from the darkest recesses of Riggan’s ego. The star of the film is undoubtedly Keaton, whose jittery, jangly performance, with its poignant references to the actor’s past as Batman, represents his wildest work since Beetlejuice more than 25 years ago. Stone is also superbly emphatic, with her gigantic anime eyes set in that pallid CBGB face.

Equally deserving of top billing is the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the man to whom film-makers turn when they want shots that defy logic (it was his hand and eye behind Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity). It’s a pleasing irony that this study of one actor’s search for honesty has been concocted using a repertoire of visual sleights of hand. A philosophical rumination it may be but that doesn’t prevent it from also being an adrenalised delight. It puts the romp into trompe l’oeil.

Two new biopics might benefit from the tiniest drop of that audacity. The faults in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (12A) lie not with Eddie Redmayne, who is full of vitality as the young Stephen Hawking, nor with Felicity Jones as his future wife, Jane Wilde, whom he meets when his motor neurone disease is not yet diagnosed. The film fails to find an expressive voice for its subject once his verbal powers become restricted – it then becomes Jane’s story, with Hawking gradually sidelined from his own movie.

But then, conventionality is on the cards right from the early shots of Hawking and his chums woo-hooing on their bicycles through a blue-tinged Cambridge in the 1960s; it’s the sort of cinema that will look best on Sunday-night television. This extends to the tone of excessive niceness. How jarring to see a film so devoid of conflict, tension or struggle. The most memorable character is the physicist who storms out of a lecture and calls Hawking’s theories preposterous. The closing titles stop short of assuring us that everyone got on famously for ever and no one said or thought anything nasty or resentful. But only just.

Unbroken (15), which follows the Olym­pic athlete Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) from the broiling frenzy of the Second World War to internment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, is poor in more exotic ways. Directed with extravagant ineptitude by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay that counts Joel and Ethan Coen among its writers, it plays like parody – this is a Mommie Dearest-style cult classic of the future. The material is indisputably dramatic but it hasn’t been shaped or shot with any dynamism; the PoW camp scenes aren’t remotely harrowing. And the dialogue incorporates countless lines – “If you can take it, you can make it!” – destined to become camp slogans for the ages.

The usually excellent O’Connell is only one member of the cast whose best efforts at suffering are undone by a creosote tan and gleaming teeth. In the film’s lowest point, he is upstaged by a computer-generated shark hamming up its death scene.

If you’ve ticked the glorious Paddington off your list, you could take any nippers in your care to the modern-day remake of Annie (PG). “Everyone loves a musical,” crows the rock’n’roll has-been Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Everyone except the makers of Annie, that is: though the old numbers are here, they’re staged in an off-hand manner that lacks the excitement of John Huston’s original. There are compensations. Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress at the Oscars, for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is delightful without being twee, and there’s sparky chemistry between Jamie Foxx as the mayoral candidate who takes the Little Orphan in to improve his polling and Rose Byrne, his perky assistant. “The sun will come out . . .” trills Wallis, exaggerating only slightly. A clement few hours with occasional outbreaks of pizzazz.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.