Her

                “…Public streets blur into private forecourts. Seductive passages become corporate cul-de-sacs of soaring glass, steel and stone…These are offices built to look great in photographs…But in the end a city is not its buildings, it is its people and there is something salutary in the way Londoners fail to live up, or down, to the cosmetic gloss of their surroundings…To a newcomer the City looks impenetrable, like an oiled machine with a hidden logic. City folk might seem coolly efficient but it’s an illusion. Look again and many of them seem out of their element, as if caught between one air-conditioned sanctuary and the next. These are not employees ‘on message’. There is doubt and indecision in their gestures. Others are not dressed for the office at all but residents from the housing estates. Something of the essence of the City is visible here: the telling gap between official power and lived experience…”

Reading this mission statement from photographer Polly Braden, about her recent project London Square Mile, brought me back to Spike Jonze’s Her. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what my problem is with what, on the surface at least, is an impeccably made, thought-provoking sci-fi love story for our times. And it’s this: it’s too seductive, too in love with its own ‘cosmetic gloss‘.

Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created a gorgeous near-future world of city lights and modernist apartments, coordinated fashion and hi-tech immersion around the lonely life of mild-mannered writer Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a man mourning the end of his marriage and looking for consolation wherever he can find it. This turns out to be in the form of Samantha, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, a ‘consciousness‘ that mimics human interaction, learning and evolving at a frightening pace. Theodore soon finds himself drawn into a seductive relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that grows into love and even sex.

So far, so interesting. After all, at the rate technological progress is annexing our lives it’s only a matter of time before it provides for sexual desire and emotional needs. It almost feels inevitable really, even now, twenty-first century manifest destiny. Her sets this moment in an unspecified future but it can’t be more than twenty or thirty years from now. Which makes the portrayal of the world around Theodore all the more pointed. This isn’t a distant sci-fi future we can dismiss as fantasy. This is, potentially, our world, in our life time.

Yet it feels like a particularly ravishing car advert in thrall to the lovely modernist shimmer of over-privileged ennui. Where are the poor for instance? There’s a scene where Theodore looks out over a public beach, people walking by on the boardwalk like the perfectly-spaced cars in old World’s Fair models of future traffic, pointillist figurines from a Seurat painting. In this future world there is no ‘doubt and indecision‘ in people’s gestures, no disorder, no outbreak of human vitality. It feels like a film made by people who are so immured in their world of privilege, social media and hi-tech toys they simply don’t see the poor any more, or they’ve airbrushed them out of the future so as not to spoil the pristine elegance of the shot.

I mean we’re supposed to worry about this man’s withdrawal from the real world but the real world around him is so sterile he might as well exist in a virtual cocoon of immersive video games and Samantha’s empathic voice. Why not? You could argue this is deliberate, that this background is mood music for Theodore’s state of mind, or a subtle dystopian warning of our future, but I don’t think so. The film is super proud of how beautiful it is, how tragically romantic it is, how clever and questioning it is about the future we’re heading for, yet it seems in love with that future.

When you take away the seductive cinematography, the Arcade Fire soundtrack, the fine, touch-sensitive performance of Joaquin Phoenix, what are you left with? ‘The past,’ Samantha tells Theodore, ‘is just a story we tell ourselves‘. So, of course, is the future. The story Her is telling us is not Romeo & Juliet for the twitter generation but this: technology will save us from the messiness of human interaction. It’s easy to mock a film that attempts to explore such things, of course, but it’s just as easy to fall under its state-of-the-art spell.

Ultimately, it does for computers what Spielberg did for aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It surrenders to emotional despair, to the mystical implications, the higher consciousness that will save us, teach us how to truly love. The fear is gone. Once we worried about HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), or the rapacious Proteus IV in Demon Seed (1977), Skynet in The Terminator (1984), or the prophetic rabbit-hole of The Matrix (1999). Now we’re a generation in full fatal embrace of computers, just waiting for them to love us back.

Great Oscar Speeches Part 1 – Doesn’t Pussyfoot Around

Oscar speeches are, of course, one of the most potentially cringe-making occasions known to man. Classic examples of toe-curlingly bad speeches abound: who can forget Sally field’s “You really like me!” or Tom Hanks’s craven “God Bless America”? But there are plentiful counter-examples, if you dig back into the archives. And thanks to the wonders of Youtube, we can enjoy many of them all over again, at our leisure. In fact, these clips have become little mirco cultural artifacts in their own right. And so, as part of our Oscars count-down, Oomska will be running a series contemplating some of the best Oscar acceptance speeches.

We begin with an absolute corker: Bob Dylan picking up the statuette for a song that, for Dylan fans, seemed to come out of the blue, back at the start of the Noughties. Providing the theme tune for Curtis Hanson’s sweetly depressing comedy of dysfunctional academic manners, ‘Wonder Boys’, in 2000, Dylan’s ‘Things Have Changed’ richly deserved the acclaim it received, and brought a little magic to the 2001 Oscars ceremony – “live by satellite from Australia”.

Introduced by Jennifer Lopez – a singer who could not be much farther removed in style or sensibility from Bob Dylan, but hey, they do have in common the fact that they look good in leather trousers –  Dylan performs the song whilst seemingly peering out into total darkness, or possibly into overly bright lights. Maybe there’s little difference between the two?  The contrast between the performer and the audience – seen in sweeping wide shots, and in the traditional feature close up (Danny Devito munching on what looks like a carrot) – and the lyrics being enunciated by the performer, offer pungently sharp contrasts: “standing in the gallows with my head in the noose…”

 

 

Dylan’s performance is fine. But what’s truly fascinating is the speech, if only for its realness, the sense that Dylan (despite surely knowing he’d got it, after all why agree to perform from the other side of the planet?) actually is making his speech up as he goes along, a sense heightened by the typically characterful facial expressions Dylan pulls, notably when praising the Academy for choosing a song which “doesn’t pussy-foot around or turn a blind eye to human nature”. Amen.

Potential winners of 2014, please take note: this is how it should be done.

 

 

The Small, Bald Golden Man

If there were to be such a Borgesian thing as an industry award for industry awards, the Academy Awards would be a worthy nominee and would have every reason to begin composing an amusing, heartfelt, rambling, good-cause-invoking speech that takes itself very seriously and doesn’t stop for the cut-off music. The outstanding achievement of the Oscars is certainly not that they accurately reflect the best films in a given year or offer up a tasteful, compact or even mildly entertaining ceremony, but rather the quaintly odd fact that they retain a direct link with their original function of celebrating the film industry and showcasing its wares and players. This is truly anomalous within the field of televised award ceremonies with, for example, the Grammy Awards and VMAs surviving as floating signifiers with only the most vestigial connections to a feeble music industry.

The Oscars are effective not only in drawing in a significant television audience (40 million people in the United States alone in 2013), but also in increasing the audience for the films in contention. Until recently, commentators would blithely cite the fact that wins in the important categories of Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture would provide a measurable box-office bump to the winners. In truth, however, from the beginning of October until March, cinemas and cinemagoers are already dominated by films vying for these awards. If you are blindly venturing out to the cinema during awards season, you’d better have a high tolerance for worthy historical drama, uplifting biopics, Meryl Streep, affecting epoch-altering speeches, the music of John Williams, and beautiful actors temporarily looking as godawful as the rest of us, or you’d better have an extra-strength EpiPen hovering in readiness just above your heart to deal with some serious anaphylaxis. Of course, some of these films are great, but many – and there seem to be many more of these pretenders each year – are not. It is only when the nimbus of Oscar glory has drawn out the very last of the taste-conscious laggards that cinemas change the fare and the variety of the awards season yields to the steroidal mass of the summer blockbusters, a new one arriving each week to strong-arm at least six screens per multiplex in a determined smash and grab before the next disappointing behemoth rolls in.

If we shift focus from the strictly industrial purpose of the Oscars to their capacity to discern quality, it is necessary to do a little throat clearing and swiftly make allowances for fallibility. Time has not been kind to many of the films chosen as Best Picture. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen the paint peel rapidly off Chicago, Crash and Million Dollar Baby. Last year’s big winner, Argo, is already looking like an unspeakable mediocrity, as unlovable as a month-old novelty record. Too often, the awards fall prey to the competing campaigns mounted by the studios vying for the prizes. The significant categories mentioned above (Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture) end up reflecting wider debate and discourse, not strictly because the Academy is either sensitive or responsive to  trends, but rather because the producers and distributors trying to win support for their particular films often resort to modish and inflated appeals to make the case for their work. For example, in 2013, Bill Clinton was drafted in to introduce Lincoln for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globe Awards, the former president obviously happy to embrace the association, but not necessarily doing his predecessor any favours.

Over the years, there have been rumours of behind-the-scenes dirty campaigning on behalf of, and against, certain films; such stories evoke nothing so much as the “ratfucking” of the Nixon White House, but, to my mind, the worst excesses of the campaigning are the out-in-the-open appeals made on behalf of the nominees. This year, for example, the contest reduces certain categories to whether you are an AIDS person (Dallas Buyers Club) or a slavery person (Twelve Years a Slave). The particular qualities of the films in question are sidelined, all sorts of exaggerated claims are made for the inspiring or improving effects or art, and producers and political activists meet in a mayfly coupling of shared self-interest that terminates abruptly when the credits roll on the Oscar broadcast.

Against these reliable-as-clockwork pieties stands the equally studied quirkiness of American Hustle, a lucrative vein director David O’Russell is now tapping for the second year in a row, on the back of the goofy and wretched Silver Linings Playbook. This kind of film harks back to the victories of other “leave-me-out-of-it” oddities such as The Sting and Fargo, which forsook the sobriety of the usual Oscar contenders and sailed above the fray on a chuff of whimsy. Argo almost took that route, being an equally vapid assemblage, but it also leaned heavily on its based-on-a-true-story blather and its setting in Iran during the revolution. In fact, Argo spanned a number of the perennial discourses, including satisfying sentimental requirements for a comeback by marking the completion of Ben Affleck’s return from years of J-Lo-assisted ridicule. Like this year’s Gravity, Argo also occupied a separate unspoken category, that of the studio-supported film that feeds the Academy’s desire to hoist up at least one strictly commercial feature as a stand-in for all the solid work it would like us to believe Hollywood produces: Such an avatar status also applied to Titanic, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King and, appropriately enough, Avatar.

Just to demonstrate how slippery the unspoken classifications that surround these films are, Dallas Buyers’ Club’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey, is just as likely to profit from the Academy’s fondness for a comeback story. The line behind McConaughey’s campaign is that this is an actor who has seen the light after a lucrative decade of idling around in rom-coms, who has turned down the money to seek out better parts that demonstrate his gifts. The appetite for a comeback draws in Bruce Dern, who could also be said to profit from the Academy’s willingness to patronise the odd older actor with belated recognition: Jessica Tandy, James Coburn and, last year, Emmanuelle Riva. To apprehend the needless generosity of this gesture, consider the fact that Gloria Stuart was nominated for her bit part as old Rose in Titanic! A similarly schmaltzy impulse is apparent in the nomination of children, many of whom fade from attention when their cuteness expires. A more novel strain within the established order is the non-campaigning campaigning started by Joaquin Phoenix in 2013, on the way to being nominated for The Master, and vocally taken up this year by Michael Fassbender on his way to being nominated for his role in Twelve Years a Slave.

We shouldn’t watch the Oscars, however, just for the limited pleasure of snarking at the kitsch and conservatism, though it’s as reliable a spot to find those things as one could wish for. Now and again, something good slips through and snags a statue. The supporting actress and actor category is a good source of this surprise. There’s something satisfying in the thought that, given all the energy and money squandered by some very vain and wealthy people to secure this prize, someone as unaffected as Brenda Fricker could justifiably trump them with  her performance in  My Left Foot. There’s a similar joy in the idea that, under the creaking monumentality and worthiness of Oscar bait, down-and-dirty genre films could result in John Malkovich getting nominated, rightly, for In the Line of Fire, or Tommy Lee Jones winning, rightly, for The Fugitive. As for the show itself, amid the ridiculous musical numbers, the misfiring teleprompting and the long-winded false modesty of the winners, there is sometimes an acceptance speech as free of gloss and self-regard, and as short, as the one made by Joe Pesci when he won for his role in GoodFellas:

“It was my privilege, thank you.”

 

Catching Up With the Oscars

 

We don’t care about the Oscars, right? After all, why would anyone pay any attention at all to what the people with the worst taste in the world think are the best films of the year? And yet… we do care, or at least take an interest, don’t we? Maybe we like the spectacle, the fashion, the glitz, or just the odd sense of smug frustration we get from knowing the big awards have not gone to the most deserving candidates. Either way, anybody who’s even vaguely interested in contemporary cinema surely cannot totally ignore the competitors, or the results announced during that interminable, overblown ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.

At worst, the list of nominees for Best Picture (as in moving picture, right?) assembled every year by AMPAS (that ‘S’ is for ‘Science’, remember?), can at least serve as a reminder of some of the ‘big films’ – and if the ‘Academy’ loves anything, then its a big, *big* film – we may have missed during the year. So cynicism aside, we might use the time between the announcement of the nominations, and the portentously slow-mo opening of those little golden envelopes with the winners’ names on them, to catch up with the films that are, for better or worse, on the hopefuls list.

So, between now and March 2nd, Oomska will be running through the Best Picture nominees, writing capsule reviews, tracking the odds, and offering our own opinions on how worthy each film might be of such an award, if we cared about such things. So watch this page for news, betting updates, trailers, clips, and links to Oomska’s individual film reviews and feature articles. Feel free to get in touch with your own offerings and opinions…….

The Wolf of Wall Street

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 50/1 33/1 66/1

 

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Great. Modern classic. Best Scorsese since ‘Casino’, possibly best since ‘GoodFellas’.

American Hustle

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 10/1 20/1

 

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Very Good. Maybe no more than the sum of its parts. But what parts!

Nebraska

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 100/1 150/1

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Good. Begins slowly and builds. Tender, poignant, funny.

Dallas Buyers Club

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 100/1 33/1 40/1

 

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Good. Matthew McConaughey actually can act, and could take the Oscar for this.

Captain Phillips

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 150/1

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Good. Excellent action movie, occasionally transcending its genre. Silliness and longueurs towards the end don’t spoil the overall experience.

Gravity

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 11/4 7/2

Official Trailer

Oomska’s Review of ‘Gravity’

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Poor. Well-excuted special effects let down by dire script.

Her

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 150/1

Official Trailer

Oomska’s Review of ‘Her’

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Poor. Silly, too long, too in love with itself. Chocolate box imagery meets cracker barrel philosophy.

12 Years a Slave

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 4/11 1/3 1/4

 

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Very Good. Avoids pitfalls of self-solemnity. Great visuals, well-paced storytelling, fine acting.

Philomena

Current Odds (Ladbrokes): 150/1 50/1

 

Official Trailer

Oomska’s super-reductive summary: Ok. Surprisingly dull in parts. Coogan and Dench not firing on all cylinders.