Gravity

This film’s defenders and enthusiasts tend to insist that it needs to be seen in 3D, preferably in IMAX 3D, in order to be fully appreciated. What’s odd about such a claim is that it ultimately condemns the very film it seeks to praise, since arguing that the movie can only be fairly judged using parameters which fall outside those used to assess every other modern film, means admitting that this is not really, in the fullest and most commonly accepted sense, a ‘film’ at all. It’s more of a fairground entertainment of some sort, an immersive spectacle that seeks to offer more than a mere ‘moving picture’ but actually ends up delivering far less.  Leaving aside the fact that cinema has its roots in exactly this sort of amusement park ride, the fundamental question remains: should this entertainment even be considered for an Academy Award? And what will its future be, once the theatrical runs peter out and the larger portion of its historical existence on disc, or digital download, begins?

So in fact it makes much more sense to jettison the 3D gimmickry, and consider the merits of ‘Gravity’ as a plain old film. As such, it has a lot going for it: state of the art technology, top-tier stars, enormous budget, big themes. Sadly, none of these elements can raise the film above mediocrity. And the double meaning of the title – referring not just to the weightlessness of space but also the grave danger the characters find themselves in – also threatens to collapse inwards, since the potentially serious thematic aspects (man’s predicament, alone in a Godless universe) are ignored in favour of thrills and spills.

Some of the early scenes are promising. That’s not to say that the film starts well: although the visuals are good, the first couple of minutes of the soundtrack are given over to annoyingly inaudible conversation being exchanged between Earth, and the astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, as well as between those characters and a couple of hardly seen minor figures who will be conveniently killed off in short order, leaving us with a lot of cutesy chit chat between the major stars. The plot gets going about twenty minutes in, when the space shuttle around which George and Sandra had been working, is catastrophically damaged by space debris, leaving the two surviving astronauts stranded with diminishing oxygen supplies. George has a fancy new jet pack, presumably supplied by some sort of NASA version of James Bond’s ‘Q’, which allows him to go scooting around willy nilly; Sandra becomes detached and begins drifting helplessly into open space, spinning and tumbling and panicking as the remaining percentage of her oxygen supply heads into single figures.  Rescue is at hand, though, in the form of Jet Set George, who comes blasting out to reel her back in. Anyone who has an existing aversion to George Clooney will find him hard to stomach here; this is far from his most subtle performance.

Anyway, so begins a series of mini crises, little cliff-hangers in the heavens, with each seemingly hopeful step towards a route back to terra firma interrupted by obstacles which are then duly overcome, the characters all the while evincing a puckish sense of humour about their perilous circumstances. “Clear skies, with a chance of space debris” quips Bullock at one stage, whist struggling through a situation that would have most of us wondering about the arrangements for waste disposal within our space suits.

Bullock, though, is made of sterner stuff, and despite having 0nly had six months’ rudimentary training (she’s a doctor, not a career astronaut) she is able to open airlocks on a variety of Russian and Chinese space stations, and can read the manuals and operate the controls inside them. There’s a twist concerning George Clooney’s character, around the one hour mark, which turns out not to be a twist at all; after this, the already fairly credulity-straining plot spirals into utter preposterousness, probably peaking at the point where Bullock uses a fire extinguisher to propel herself between a redundant escape pod (wouldn’t you know it, the fuel supply has run out, despite the pod never having been used), and the latest in a series of ‘last chance’ space stations.

But so what if the plot is silly? There’s no reason for the film not to work as an entertainment. What would Hitchcock have said about accusations of implausibility? No, the reason for the film’s failure lies with the script. Woeful dialogue predominates, and the story is just too corny and repetitive to offer any real sense of immersion or suspension of disbelief. Scene after scene plays out far too slowly, with lingering shots of not very much following each segment of obstacle circumvention. The decision to cut all contact with Earth, and keep it cut, probably was intended to generate a sense of heightened isolation; what it does, though, is rob of us of dialogue in the latter segments of the film. Bullock is left talking to herself, and this becomes increasingly inane.

Overall, this is a film that relies not just on cumbersome presentation technology , but also on our pre-existting sense of wonder about space. This in itself is a further fatal flaw, since our wonder is exactly that: pre-existing. The film has nothing to add to the scenes we’ve seen so many times before: Earth viewed from space; vast emptiness; floating silence. As an entertainment, with all the thrills of IMAX, this may work well. As a film, it’s just ok. Bullock is fine; Clooney is slightly irritating. The script is under-written, the story is hokum. The running time, to be fair, is a pleasantly uninflated 90 minutes. There was an opportunity here to make a genuinely fresh movie set in space but foregoing all that dreary Sci-fi nonsense about aliens and evil empires, focusing instead on the much more interesting subject of the human race itself; that opportunity has been missed. The result is an ok entertainment, and a pretty poor film.

 

 

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.

 

 

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. 

Xan Brooks Interview

Oomska talks to: Xan Brooks

Xan Brooks is a film critic, and Associate Editor, at The Guardian newspaper.

Thanks for talking to Oomska, Xan. Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about your current job, as a film critic, and how that came about?

According to my press card, my current job is an ‘associate editor’ at the Guardian, which is a catch-all title that covers a multitude of sins. I write reviews and news and features and I also pitch in on podcasts and video. I’d say about 90% of that is film-related, and that’s obviously where my main interest and experience is, but I also dabble a bit in books and sports journalism and in general feature writing.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed your Wimbledon reports. What proportion of Guardian arts writers fit this ‘multitude of sins’ mode? 

Is it the Chinese who conflate crisis and opportunity into one word? Journalism is going through its own mini ‘Reformation’, staff are being cut and those who remain are often required to double-up and multi-task. Obviously this means a greater workload, at times painfully so. But in terms of the tennis coverage, it’s been a blessing. I’ve loved tennis since I was a kid and it’s lovely to be able to write about it. Writing is writing, whatever the genre, so long as you have some knowledge and appreciation of what you’re writing about. But you’re right, not many others seem to stray far beyond their specialist area, even now. It was me who asked to cover the tennis and the sports-desk agreed. I’m grateful they felt able to take that gamble.

As for how I arrived at my current role, I blundered into it. I worked for five years at the Big Issue magazine in London, which was an exciting and eccentric place to work as well as being a wonderful environment in which to learn about journalism; to experiment and fail and sometimes get it right. From there I started to freelance for the nationals, and was then offered the chance to edit the Guardian film site, which I wound up doing for eight years.

How would you compare the Film Site now to how it was at the time when you started? Has the balance shifted, in terms of the perceived importance of the Film site, compared with the print version? With the explosion in online newspaper access, the readership must be much more digital now; certainly more people must access the site now than read the paper?

Oh yes, the film site was such the poor cousin to print when I started. Very hard to be taken seriously, very hard to originate decent stuff and turn it into something more than a weird elephant’s graveyard archive for old film content. But I think even then there was a sense that this was the future. The Guardian was always happy to fund and nurture the website, so the support was always there. In the broadest terms I think the audience and the perception really began to change after 9/11, during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ when the Guardian began picking up an American readership who perhaps felt they weren’t being well served by the main US news sources at the time. These days there’s a general acknowledgement that print (at least as we know it) is on the way out and that the audience is predominantly international and digital.

How did you first develop an enthusiasm for cinema? What were some key films?

My dad has always been a great film enthusiast. I remember him telling me about antique 1930s monster movies (‘Dracula’, ‘King Kong’, etc) when I was barely old enough to speak.

Even when I visit him now, there is usually something he has stored up to show me on DVD. So perhaps it all started from there.

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‘Long and Wasted Years’ – Some First Impressions of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’

Let’s run this review in reverse. Bob Dylan’s latest album, ‘Tempest’, is not a masterpiece. Worse than that, although it unquestionably offers much to enjoy, admire, and even celebrate, its flaws are sufficiently serious to disqualify it from any claims to greatness. In fact, if we were still inhabiting the olden days of vinyl, we’d be saying that this is an ill-balanced ‘record’ of two halves, with ‘side one’ of the album being by far the strongest. Overall, this is a very good set of songs, with some frustratingly grievous shortcomings. It’s not quite as good as the very best of his late period work, but it is, overall, a lot better than his last couple of studio albums. It’s lyrically rich, if musically uninspiring, and its best tracks should stand the test of time as well as anything he’s done since, say, 1990.

Given the hype that comes as standard these days with any Dylan release, and the hopes of the faithful that the Great Man may yet produce one more all-time classic – before the mortality that’s been a key lyrical theme of his late period finally claims him, sealing up the living discography and bringing the never-ending tour to a halt – this assessment might seem disappointingly bleak. That would be a false impression, however: for one thing, Dylan’s greatness is such that even his mediocre works tower forbiddingly over the best of the rest of contemporary popular music; more importantly, perhaps the most apposite way of summing up this album’s place in the canon would be to say that it lays a much better claim to an affinity with ‘Time Out of Mind’ and ‘Love & Theft’ than Dylan’s wildly overrated 2006 album, ‘Modern Times’, which is often cited as part three in a glorious ‘comeback’ trilogy.

Timing is everything. After the underrated and misunderstood ‘Under the Red Sky’ album in 1990, Dylan didn’t release another set of original material until ‘Time Out of Mind’ in 1997, meaning he basically spent the 1990s in a critical blackout. During those years, and contrary to received wisdom at the time, he gave some of his best post-60s concert performances, and released two albums of folk and blues covers (‘Good as I Been to You ‘ and ‘World Gone Wrong’) that garnered little fanfare but which, were they issued today, would be hailed as masterpieces. ‘Modern Times’, on the other hand, was released during the full flush of what we might call Bob Dylan’s ‘second critical honeymoon’, a period when mainstream critics, still reeling from the revelation – brought about by ‘Time Out of Mind’ – that Dylan had never been the has-been they’d long taken him for, had become swooningly incapable of discerning any gradations of greatness in Dylan’s works.

That Dylan followed his 1997 return from the wilderness with 2001′s exuberant, multifaceted ‘Love & Theft’ – an album whose relative merits, vis-à-vis its predecessor, critics and fans are still debating today – only served to seal his newfound critical sanctification. Thus ‘Modern Times’, an album that contained a few decent tracks but which generally wallowed in bloated, blues-by-numbers monotony, was declared to be a classic. ‘Together Through Life’, released to an unsuspecting world in 2009, doubtless benefited from both this blind critical fervour, and the fact that its lightness and relative brevity were a blessed relief after the turgidity of ‘Modern Times’; nevertheless, that album was an eminently disposable work which really ought to have seen the light in partial form only, its few worthwhile tracks maybe surfacing on a future ‘Bootleg Series’ release. Thus ‘Tempest’, Dylan’s 35th studio album, presents itself as the rightful heir to Dylan’s last truly great set of songs, ‘Love & Theft’.

Again, let’s not pussy-foot around. ‘Tempest’ can’t compete with, or in truth even be seriously compared to, ‘Love & Theft’. At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that Dylan (or anyone else, for that matter) will ever conjure anything nearly so sustainedly brilliant again. That said, the best tracks on ‘Tempest’ could sit unashamedly alongside those from ‘Love & Theft’ or ‘Time Out of Mind’. Indeed, if you were aiming to assemble some sort of ten track ‘best of’ compilation, documenting Dylan’s ‘Critical Renaissance Period’ in chronological release date order, you might – depending on taste – start your list with something along the lines of:

1. Standing in the Doorway

2. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

3. Not Dark Yet

4. Things Have Changed

5. Mississippi

6. Floater (Too Much to Ask)

7. Po’ Boy

8. Red River Shore

 

So, having used up 8 out of 10 tracks – mixing three parts ‘Time Out of Mind’, to one part Oscar-winning single, three parts ‘Love & Theft’, no parts ‘Modern Times’, one part ‘Bootleg Series Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs)’, and no parts ‘Together Through Life’ – this would leave two slots spare for ‘Tempest’. How to fill them?

Selecting the new album’s best tracks means first discarding those which most acutely exemplify the album’s more serious faults. These could best be summarised by lamenting the fact that Dylan has stuck so rigidly to a now wearily familiar musical template. His favoured mode, many have noted, remains a slow, listless shuffle; combine this with a tendency to let songs ramble on for ages, and you have a recipe for irresistibly attracting the listener’s finger to the ‘Skip’ button. Equally vexing is Dylan’s continued reliance on stale, reheated blues riffs; plus his seeming refusal to let his band – fiercely skilled musicians, all – deviate from such a stagnant pool of musical ideas.

Of course, selecting the new album’s best tracks also means making judgements that we know may be precipitant, since almost every Dylan album is a ‘grower’, whose full measure can never be taken at first, second, or even twentieth listen. A Dylan album must be lived with over a period of time, before it eventually settles into its rightful position in the listener’s affections. Perhaps ‘settled’ is not the right word, as over time Dylan’s albums, and the songs they contain, tend to wax and wane in both the critical consensus, and in the individual fan’s affections. First impressions are, therefore, more unreliable than usual, in Dylan’s case.

That said, a number of tracks here are so indelibly scarred by the failings mentioned above, recalling the worst, most redundant excesses of ‘Modern Times’, that they automatically exclude themselves from our putative compilation. ‘Early Roman Kings’, despite playing host to some interesting lyrics, has a central riff so insistently annoying that listening to the song’s full five minutes becomes a purgatorial experience. Other tracks just about manage to survive the imposition of dourly repetitive riffing, their positive qualities tipping the balance away from dreariness, towards lasting value. Even some of these, such as such as ‘Narrow Way’, at seven and a half minutes, could have done with some trimming.

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