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.

Continue reading

And the award goes to…

As Homeland wins a record six Emmy awards, we ask what such an award means if it isn’t actually about the relative quality of the competing TV shows.

What do the Emmys tell us about anything? This year, Homeland was the big winner, scooping a record-equalling six prizes, including best actress for Claire Danes, best actor for Damian Lewis and outstanding series. At the same time, Mad Men not only missed out on winning its fifth outstanding series award in a row, but also failed to convert one of its 17 nominations into a win. From this evidence, one might be tempted to imagine that Mad Men has entered its terminal decline, while Homeland represents some creatively inspired bolt from the blue. For someone who has enjoyed Mad Men’s rejuvenated fifth season while slogging through Homeland’s uninspired and overly twisty-turny first season, this interpretation is patently wrongheaded.

It is safe to say that the Emmys are no useful guarantee of quality, and never have been. During its five-season run, The Wire—now frequently described as the best TV series ever—did not win a single Emmy. In fact, it never even made the shortlist of nominees for outstanding series. It took five nominations before The Sopranos—another contender for the increasingly debased title of “best TV series ever”—finally won: In the meantime, it had lost four times to The West Wing. In 2005, Lost beat Deadwood offering definitive proof that standards of excellence were not the metrics being applied in this contest. One could ask then, if the Emmys are no mark of quality, what function do they serve?

Quite practically, the most significant measure that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences responds to is commercial success. In 2006, 24—almost past its use-by date with critics, but still a ratings juggernaut—won the top award, beating the Sopranos. The Emmys won by Homeland this week are a similar ratification of that show’s popular appeal: By the end of its first season, it had amassed just under twice the number of viewers as Mad Men had secured by the end of its fifth, and highest-rated, season. Giving the top award to a ratings success puts an official stamp of approval on an anointing already carried out by the viewing public. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is not in the business of alienating its base by making ivory tower gestures to unfashionable and frequently inscrutable works of TV drama. Awards made to shows such as Homeland offer a retroactive assurance that to be a viewer is to be someone with an effortless, unstudied and  instinctual grasp of quality.

Like the Oscars before them, the Emmys were created to bestow a legitimising gloss of respectability on a suspect industry and product, born into an oppressive environment of political witch-hunts and moral crusades. Just as Hollywood instituted self-censorship through the Hays Code and created its own measure of quality via the Oscars as inoculation against the more frightening disapproval of outside forces, television also took institutional measures to affirm its decency and capacity to take care of its own affairs. Part of this initiative involved staging an event that could generate pictures of TV people in evening dress, comporting themselves respectably while receiving shiny statuettes.

Television has long overcome its initial existential insecurity and the Emmys now have a momentum of their own, but these awards stay true to their origins by continuing to publicly proclaim American TV’s opinion of itself. For one thing, the whole event wafts a sanitising air, perfuming some less confounding genre hits, but leaving the irredeemable outlying genre reaches of TV untouched. Game of Thrones can be nominated and is fit to dominate in technical categories, but there is a suspicion that its fantasy-fiction origins eliminate it from serious consideration—or at least until it has an assured audience and has reached its lap-of-honour final season.  The actors of Breaking Bad are also awards-worthy, but Academy voters haven’t chosen to acclaim the show itself, perhaps put off by its subject matter.

Another way in which the awards still speak to the medium’s current anxieties is the impulse to celebrate popular shows that actually draw viewers at a moment when there is fierce competition from alternative broadcasting streams (the Internet) and alternative uses of TVs (gaming).  Homeland’s Emmy could be read as a pronouncement: “Look, here is exciting, popular, quality TV drama. Please continue to tune in!” Perhaps next year—by which time Homeland’s fundamental resemblance to 24 should be even more apparent—this series will no longer serve as a suitable vehicle to advertise television’s implacable currency. A faltering second season, or a ratings success that is confirmed in its predictability may not be able to adequately respond to whatever anxiety will be troubling TV’s digestive system 12 months hence.

Just don’t expect the prize to be awarded to something truly outstanding.

 

‘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.

Continue reading

Justified: The strong, not-so-silent type.

In an age when “quality” television is celebrated for its literary qualities, ‘Justified’ takes aim a little lower—at entertainment—and bullseyes its target.

Exiled from a prestigious posting in Miami for killing a criminal in a quick-draw gunfight, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is transferred back home to Harlan County, Kentucky, forcing an unwelcome reacquaintance with his past, with the greatest discomfort arising from encounters with his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), his criminally inclined father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) and, most significantly, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a Somerset Maugham-reading troublemaker given to both violence and philosophising.

Raylan is like a movie cowboy in a number of ways. He wears a cowboy hat, regularly finds himself in gunfights and is played by an actor who hasn’t shied away from cowboy parts, including supplying the voice of the very (Eastwoodesque) Spirit of the West in ‘Rango’. Even his friends, enemies and frenemies—in the case of childhood-pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder—frequently comment on Raylan’s cowboy traits and trappings, but, like any good cowboy, he does not openly reflect upon his own masculine role-play.

An incapacity for self-reflection has always been an important feature of the movie cowboy, forming part of an overarching reticence that permits only pith of the “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” flavour. Aside from this trademark lack of self-absorption, however, Raylan talks a little too much to be a movie cowboy. He may be strong, but he is definitely not silent. Granted he preserves a laconic air, but he has an obvious weakness for anecdotes, both delivering and receiving. This isn’t too surprising, really, in light of the fact that the character was created by Elmore Leonard, who writes stories populated by characters who enjoy telling stories. In the world of criminal dim-wittedness Leonard tends to describe, it is important for his heroes to be able to amuse at least themselves as they go against the flow of a kind of general atmospheric stupidity.

Continue reading