Thursday, 28 April 2016
The election for the new Mayor of London is coming up. Voters will decide who steps into the shoes of the outgoing Boris Johnson, with polls currently favouring Labour's Sadiq Khan narrowly ahead of the Tories' Zac Goldsmith. But as I examine the various candidates it's clear that one in particular stands out for this observer; The Ephemeric endorses Caroline Pidgeon of the Liberal Democrats.
The Outgoing Incumbent
Let's start with a few words on the outgoing Mayor, Boris Johnson. People give a lot of stick to my fellow Old Etonian, but it is undeniable that London has improved greatly under his watch.
London, even 10 years ago, had a very different feel to the city we currently live in; a sort of half-baked sense of identity and stagnation, rather than the dynamic, world class powerhouse we currently live in that's more on a par with New York during its golden era. The economy is at an all time peak, with new construction booming and previously derelict public space evolving into new shops, restaurants and social plaza. But in particular it's the small touches that impress; the increased green spaces and trees, the clever renovation and branding of certain districts like the "theatre district", the higher maintenance and beautification of buildings and streets, and the clear improvement to public transport during that time. Reduced crime, reduced air pollution, public bicycles. Current day London is a marvel of culture and amenity, and a nicer place to live than it ever used to be.
For all the criticism he may get in some quarters, there is no doubt in my mind that Boris has done a very fine job in city hall. But there has been a clear downside to all the investment he has brought to the city, prices going through the roof, and wages not following proportionately. In fairness to Boris, this is clearly a trend that has been going long before he took office, but without doubt the increasing unaffordability of London is one of the key issues that the next Mayor will have to deal with.
An Overview of the Candidates
The UK's political system has a number of advantages over its American counterpart, chief among them being the relatively healthy multi-party system which allows for greater political choice, and reduces the effect of petty partisanship and gridlock that so paralyses the American legislature.
That said, of the five major party candidates, two can be immediately dismissed. The Green and UKIP candidates are such single issue platforms that it beggars belief. Watching the recent Mayoral debate and seeing Peter Whittle try desperately to link every issue to immigration would have been hilarious if there wasn't such a depressingly large segment of the population that agrees with him. The less said of anti-Semite George Galloway the better.
The three candidates that remain, not in terms of probability of winning but in terms of suitability for the job, fall to the traditional big three parties, Labour's Sadiq Khan, Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Pidgeon.
Candidate 1: Zac Goldsmith - Conservative Party
On the surface, as someone who was fairly happy with Boris (at least until his recent turn into Brexit politics), it seems sensible to have a look at his party's successor and assume that he would bring more of the same. After all, here is another Old Etonian, a fairly young and charismatic guy.
Unfortunately, Zac is a bit of a twit. In contrast to Boris' fierce intellect and mastery of the issues, Zac bears the naive image of someone who has never set foot in the world outside his billionaire father's mansion, and has no understanding of the problems facing regular people.
There is a TV show, Parks and Recreation. Paul Rudd briefly plays a character who is a billionaire's son who runs for political office. This character is the nicest guy in the world, but childlike, naive and hopelessly oblivious to what life is like in the real world.
Listening to Zac's hilariously out of touch answers in the recent mayoral debate, I could easily have believed I was listening to Paul Rudd's character. My favourite was his solution to the housing crisis that regular people can't afford to live in London, his gleeful answer being to the effect of "they won't have to because they can just take Crossrail". Then there was his claim that there's no point having bus lanes because in 10 years everyone will have an electric car. It's not that his answers are callous or corrupt, it's that he clearly doesn't understand why they are ridiculous.
But there is a far bigger concern than this. As in all democracies there is a seedy side to conservative politics that, much to the credit of this great nation, has rarely found itself too prominent in our discourse (any Brits who complain to me about the hard right leanings of Thatcher or Major need to have a look at the lunacy of the American Republican party and count their lucky stars). However with the migrant crisis and immigration taking such increased significance in recent times, these regressive politics have reared their ugly head.
The absolute deal-breaker for Zac Goldsmith is his full fledged support for the Brexit movement. I'll write a full article closer to the referendum, but suffice it to say, the UK leaving the EU is the wrong decision for many reasons both ideological and practical. Boris Johnson and Goldsmith staking their careers on this position is pure insanity. They're both wrong, and the fact that they resort to such fear-mongering shows that they know they're wrong. I will never in good conscience support anyone with so backwards a worldview that they would support a Brexit movement that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Candidate 2: Sadiq Khan - Labour Party
The polls' favourite at the moment, and in all likelihood the next Mayor of London. Sadiq is a better public speaker than Goldsmith, that much is clear, and he also has the benefit of running as an anti-incumbent. But Khan comes with more than his fair share of baggage and controversy.
Much of this is inherent in being a member of the current Labour Party. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is hardly popular outside his hardcore working class base, and his appointment takes the Labour Party on a hard left turn, a curious move for a party already considered too left leaning for most.
Paradoxically given my progressive persuasion, I have often found greater affinity with the British Conservative Party than Labour. In particular the relatively moderate pro-environment, technocratic David Cameron wing of the party. With the contrast of a Labour Party that frequently falls back onto outdated policies of populism and stagnation, and the lack of a consistently strong centre-left alternative, the Tories have often proven themselves the best fit for a modern centrist.
But this current Labour Party has far greater problems than even its own usual eccentricities. Corbyn has a history of controversy including anti-semitic remarks and sympathy with extremist movements such as the IRA. Add to this the recent anti-semitic scandal of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and it begins to seem as if Labour has an endemic problem. So much so that Khan has been on the warpath about reforming racism within his own party, even as he fends off accusations of his own regarding alleged anti-semitism and stage-sharing with Islamic extremists (a somewhat thin accusation in fairness). This is not a strong position to be in, and it's a wonder that it hasn't hurt Khan more in the polls.
Ultimately left wing politicos like to fancy themselves as progressive and forward moving, but with Labour that simply isn't the case. Their extreme pro-union stance will only slow the advent of exciting new technologies that could transform life in London, with transport in particular a key battleground in recent years. Their fixation on maintaining this archaic notion of a "working class" that is becoming increasingly small and unnecessary in the modern technological world smacks of regression. As a person I like Khan more than Goldsmith, but neither's policies seem anything more than just the usual party base pandering.
Candidate 3: Caroline Pidgeon - Liberal Democrat Party
Which brings us to Caroline, leader of the London Liberal Democrats with years of experience in city hall.
The Liberal Democrats have carved themselves a niche as the centrist party, the party of second choice for most of Britain both Labour and Conservative. The trouble, as in America, is that People who would otherwise vote Lib Dem don't want to vote for a smaller third party only to see their least favourite party win. They'd rather vote for their second preferred option to make sure that the winner is at least tolerable. Thererin lies the problem with first past the post voting, it inherently leads to polarization and two main parties, one for the left, one for the right. This is why the Lib Dems pushed so hard for alternative voting, a measure that was unfortunately defeated, owing to a great deal of misinformation and a fairly poorly run campaign on their part.
But I am an idealist, I'm not going to vote for a candidate I don't believe in, and the Liberal Democrats' modern, moderate policy is exactly what the city needs, not an extreme shift in either direction, just sensible forward-thinking policy that empowers the people of London. Common sense policies like half price transport fares before 7:30 to reduce peak congestion, like additional childcare in today's world where increasingly both parents need to work full time, and like 1 hour bus passes so you no longer have to buy six fares just to get to work (it works so well in Europe, why don't we have this?).
As an example of the difference between the three parties I present to you: the housing crisis. Regular people can't afford to live in London anymore. Rents are out of control, and home ownership is just a fantasy. So how is each candidate proposing to fix the problem?
Sadiq Khan says the answer is more council housing. Those ugly, run-down, blights on your neighborhood that you carefully avoid on your walk are making a comeback. Labour thinks the answer is for the Government to own more of London's property and rent it out to people at low prices.
Zac Goldsmith says the answer is more professional landlord corporations. Big private companies that own all the property in London and then rent it out at, presumably, lower and more controlled prices than the current person-to-person free-for-all.
So the two main candidates' plans for housing in London is for big organisations to own all the property and kindly rent it to you for a monthly fee. Their plan is to consign a whole generation to perpetual renting. That fantasy of home ownership? Poof, it's gone.
Caroline Pidgeon is the only candidate whose platform seems to be about actually empowering the regular person, about helping people move out of renting and get onto that property ladder. Her policies include good, common sense measures like granting extra rights to certain long-term tenants should the owner decide to sell, and increased restrictions on investment from outside the EU. While Labour and Tory policies would make it harder for you to get out of the rental trap, Caroline's are designed to give that autonomy and social mobility back to you.
And that really sums up this election. The inevitable shift to the extremes that comes with our political system has turned the two main parties into caricatures, breaking every policy down into "power to the unions, or power to big corporations?". Caroline Pidgeon and the Liberal Democrat Party is the only candidate making common sense proposals to give power to the individual, and that's why I'm endorsing her for London Mayor.
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Written by Alistair McDowall
Starring Jessica Raine, James Harkness, Ria Zmitrowicz, Darrell D'Silva, Rudi Dharmalingam
Theatre Royal Court
One of the big revelations when you read enough reviews of theatre is that most reviewers are really just making it up as they go along. I am constantly amazed to read professional reviews, including some of the major publications, where the author has clearly missed entire plot points, or drawn a ludicrous conclusion based on some obvious agenda. One of the great things about theatre is, of course, how open it is to interpretation, but it's hard to escape the whiff of sycophancy; journalists attempting to sound like they understood the play by parroting whatever the groupthink of the theatre-going class happened to be.
X, the new play from the Royal Court Theatre, has presented a particularly pronounced example of this phenomenon. Every single review has a completely different interpretation of what the play is about, so much so that people can't even seem to agree on basic story points such as setting, characters or even on what planet the story is set. Part of this is legitimate interpretation of the production, but a great deal is because these people write with such intentional vagueness that for all we know they might not even have seen the play. This form of arch hackery is altogether strangely in keeping with the style of X itself.
Let's start from the beginning. X is the newest play from 28 year old wunderkind Alistair McDowall, often described as the great white hope of British theatre scribes, and a writer with a reputation for ambitious, abstract storytelling.
X ostensibly tells the story of a group of people stranded in a research base on Pluto. Contact has been lost with Earth and things are starting to get nervy. Time is being distorted as the inhabitants begin to lose context with reality, and there's a hint of some ghostly goings on. By intermission you'll be under the impression that you're watching a fairly unremarkable, but perfectly enjoyable horror story. But McDowall is not the type to give you something so simple.
Then the second act goes completely off the deep end as characters, relationships and the passage of time shift and interchange freely with seemingly no consistency or significance. All narrative flow is abandoned. One scene even goes so far as to be 10 minutes of two characters shouting the letter "x" at each other back and forth non stop. One might make the case that this hearkens back to a key scene in the first act where one character uses bird calls as an allusion to associative memory; the fundamental maintenance of an emotional connection to particular memories in order to retain the significance and relationship between them. As the story continues, the exact opposite happens, memories fade, significance of people and events vanishes.
One might add to this the context that is heavily implied during the production, that life on Earth has seemingly come to an end. Essentially we are watching the last memories of human existence fade away in this claustrophobic box. It is surely no coincidence then that Pluto is chosen as the setting, given its connections in mythology to the underworld, the "tomb" of mankind in this case.
The problem is, I've spent four paragraphs talking about the meaning behind X, almost none of which is more than hinted at on-stage. There's nothing wrong with subtext and metaphor, but in this case the audience is going well above and beyond the call of duty in order to divine some hidden significance from the script.
In a well written play, the plot and themes should complement one another. Plot with no underlying themes is superficial, themes with no plot to hold it all together is pretentious. This is the latter. The plot here is razor thin. The characterisation is so poor, with so little depth, and such messy story telling, that it's impossible for the audience to ever develop a connection with the characters and therefore engage with the plot in the way that is an absolute requirement for a play that necessitates such hard work from the audience.
The story simply is not at all compelling, the themes not especially novel or fleshed out, and never comes together in any kind of satisfying way. You sit there waiting for something to happen, for some thematic conclusion that will bring the deeper significance of the author's intent together with what you're actually watching unfold, but this never comes. X very much has the feeling of the author having a half-baked shower-thought, and quickly cobbling together some semblance of a story to serve as a vehicle to express that thought.
It's not all negative. The set design is excellent, featuring prominently a single huge black window that dominates the set, feeling oppressive and deeply unsettling. The stage itself is tilted askew, having the combined effect of creating a discombobulated, unsettled world, and of creating a black border in the corners around the set, further adding to the sense of isolation and being trapped.
In addition the first act is entirely enjoyable, a creepy throw-back to the era of classy sci-fi circa 1970. The problem is entirely with the second act; at a time when the script should be tying the themes and plot together into a satisfying and illuminating denouement, it simply doesn't bother, and leaves you to pick up the pieces.
There's a scene in the first act where two characters discuss listening to white noise in order to find some meaning amidst the chaos. This seems to be the approach of the second act: to completely disintegrate the story and characters into abstraction, with the view that the audience will form some significance or justification that the author himself hasn't. It's the sort of pretentious contrivance that might sound compelling when described to an artistic director over a boozy lunch at the Botanist, but frankly it's cliché. The absence of meaning doesn't itself bear some inherent meaning, and if that's what passes for thought provoking at the Royal Court, one hopes they'll try a bit harder next time.
Monday, 18 April 2016
Producers Anthony Gonzalez, Justin Meldal-Johnsen
There's a crossroads that an artist comes to when they make it big. They can stick with what worked and run the risk of stagnating or, worse, drawing unfavourable comparisons with the work that made them famous, or they can go in a different direction to show their artistic depth.
It may seem strange to say this about French group M83, essentially these days a solo vehicle for maestro Anthony Gonzalez, who have after all been around for a good 15 years now. But for all the kudos and critical praise they received over that time, 2011's album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming undeniably took them to a new level. Rightly so, it was a masterpiece and one of the best albums in many years, but crucially it was a huge critical and commercial success, putting M83 and Gonzalez on the big stage for the first time. Now Gonzalez is doing film scores for Tom Cruise films, and appears to be the producer of vogue for such big names as Daft Punk, Haim and The Killers.
M83 has always had plenty of fans, but with this new-found fame, Junk is almost certainly the most widely anticipated M83 album yet. Faced with such pressure, Gonzalez has decided to take things in a bit of a different direction.
The sound of M83 has always been heavy on nostalgia, very much influenced by the synth and distortion of late 1970s/1980s. Even Hurry Up, We're Dreaming will have been frequently described during reviews as "John Hughes infused" or sounding like something out of The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. But while Gonzalez wears his influences on his sleeve, M83's music has always had a sound that's very much distinct as their own. It's modern music with a nostalgic twist. With Junk Gonzalez mines those same sources, but with an altogether less subtle, full-fat approach.
While previous M83 work can be described as some immaculate quasi-orchestral arrangements with a nostalgic flavour, the aptly named Junk dives head-first into the cheesiest, tackiest neon crevices of Gonzalez's childhood. This explains the intentionally tasteless album cover; awful fonts and colours, with what looks like some kind of happy meal toy. The entire premise of Junk appears to be celebrate the guilty pleasures of childhood.
Gonzalez himself has described the album as being an "organised mess", an eclectic collection of songs that shouldn't work, but somehow do. To paraphrase this in plainer English, the intention appears to have been to create an album that you enjoy in spite of itself, a collection of guilty pleasures. This is a very good way to describe the album as it happens, music emulating the kind of trashy pop we'd probably prefer to forget ever existed, except so finely crafted, so expertly produced, that you end up loving it as much as you hate it. The end result is something a bit like if Anthony Bourdain tried to cook a Big Mac.
The best example of this is probably lead single Do it, Try it, which is such a daft, ridiculous song, but undeniably catchy. Sometimes this approach comes off beautifully, for example with Walkway Blues, which is something of a masterclass in how to do cheesy power-pop well, sounding a bit like what we can only really describe as a techno Elton John.
There are even moments of classic M83, including the wonderful Solitude, which sounds like a James Bond theme song that never was, and notably the achingly bittersweet album closing track Sunday Night 1987.
But if the intention is to sidestep following up from Hurry Up, We're Dreaming's michelin starred brilliance by saying "hey let's be honest sometimes we really just want McDonalds", the truth is it doesn't quite work. The introspective tracks are just too saccharine, and the upbeat songs too over the top, and then there's the elevator music instrumental tracks. It's a "mess" that gets just a little bit too out of hand.
At the end of the day, junk food, no matter how well done, is still junk food. The experience of listening to this album is a bit like going to one of those hipster bars that tries to look like a filthy dive, "ironically". That said, this album is just as addictive as junk food, we can't seem to turn it off! So by no means a masterpiece, but quite enjoyable.
Must Listen :
Sunday Night 1987
Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Directed by The Coen Brothers
Written by The Coen Brothers
Produced by The Coen Brothers
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
Studio Universal Pictures
Running time 106 minutes
Everybody knows the Coen Brothers. The celebrated writer/director duo have 15 Academy Award nominations between them, winning two of them for Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The critics love them, the awards love them, and the audience loves them. Their name has become synonymous with high quality cinema.
In truth though, their comedies can be a bit hit or miss, as anyone who saw Burn After Reading will attest. That particular film is not the only, but probably the best example of the brothers' flawed approach to comedy, a grab bag of amusing bits hamstrung together with only the weakest of narrative threads.
Hail, Caesar! is a film which on first glance appears very much in the same vein, albeit executed with far greater skill. The jokes are funny enough, occasionally side-splittingly so, but the whole thing is just so lightweight.
In brief, Hail, Caesar! revolves around a film studio during the golden age of Hollywood of the 1950s. One of the actors, George Clooney goes missing, and studio fixer Josh Brolin tries to find him. There are various additional plot threads involving other actors and movie productions which only lightly relate to the central story.
We spent the whole movie expecting something more to happen, waiting for the plot to take off, but it never really did. Instead one can't help but leave the cinema feeling as though they have just watched some immaculately produced sketch comedy, a series of disparate but undeniably witty scenes which never really add up to anything greater. In the most extreme examples, there are whole scenes and character threads which honestly contribute nothing to the overall plot of the film.
Fortunately there are two things in particular that make Hail, Caesar! well worth your time. The first is the brilliant production. This movie looks and sounds pitch perfect, in particular during the all too brief segments showing the films within a film, which have been lovingly and impressively crafted to look for all the world like actual films from the 1950s. We see everything from an old fashioned western, to a musical, a Roman blockbuster, and classier prestige pictures. Some of the clips we see look like such perfect recreations of the production style of this era that it's truly uncanny, and they're a joy to watch.
The second is the phenomenal all-star cast, which includes Clooney and Brolin as mentioned, but also Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and most impressively relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who manages to carry one of the larger roles in the film without looking out of place against such illustrious colleagues.
But the smaller roles too are a veritable parade of "oh hey it's that guy!" moments, including the recognizable faces of Wayne Knight of Seinfeld, Dolph Lundgren, Allison Pill, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Michael Gambon, and many others. But the pick of the bunch is Robert Picardo of Star Trek: Voyager recognition who briefly steals the film during his one scene as a rabbi consulting on a film about the crucifixion. At every level, in every role, the casting is absolutely perfect.
So ultimately Hail, Caesar! is definitely worth watching, even though it fails to deliver the level of product that one might have hoped from such a dizzying array of talent. It's a grab-bag of pretty damn funny, if only lightly connected scenes, featuring some brilliantly produced moments of Hollywood nostalgia and great performances throughout.
Friday, 8 April 2016
Genre Experimental art-rock/jazz fusion
Producers David Bowie, Tony Visconti
If David Bowie's final album reminds us of one thing, it's that Bowie was a true artist, right until the end. Throughout his career, Bowie was known for mixing and switching different genres and styles, and with what would prove to be his last album he has produced possibly his most experimental and creatively adventurous work.
Blackstar is a fairly short album at around 40 minutes long, and yet it's hard to classify such is the combination of disparate influences and the ever shifting texture of the music. It tries everything from wild, acidic jazztronica to folk, rap (a first from Bowie) and industrial dance. It also sees Bowie adopt his first new persona in decades, this time with the decidedly creepy blind prophet.
Blackstar is an album that is best summarized by its first two singles, Blackstar and Lazarus. The former is a 10 minute long odyssey through amorphous musical movements, dense and cryptic lyrics, and a brilliant yet baffling music video that would feel more appropriately recognized with a BAFTA than a Grammy. The latter is a rather more radio friendly, yet equally evocative requiem that fits neatly with what we've come to expect from Bowie.
One has to admire the fact that even at his age Bowie continued to experiment and push into new territory. After the excellent but relatively safe rock album The Next Day it would have been easy to assume that in his later years he had settled into a plateau of nostalgia and convention (albeit conventions that he had created some 50 years earlier), but this new album makes a clear statement that this is not the case.
The trouble is that, as with much of the work he produced in the 1990s, his more experimental tracks really don't always hold together musically. Perhaps it says something about the greater trend in music as a whole that music these past 20 years really hasn't changed that much, but there doesn't seem to be as much room in music for someone to push the envelope as Bowie spent his career doing.
As a result, Blackstar is utterly fascinating as an artistic work, but how many of these songs are you really going to listen to more than once or twice? The avant-garde tracks on offer here vary wildly, from the amelodic and incohesive Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) to the marvelously zany 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. When it works its quite brilliant, but for the most part it's hit or miss. Meanwhile those looking for something a bit more conventional won't find much here other than Lazarus, but would do well to check out Bowie's beautiful send off I Can't Give Everything Away, in which Bowie wonderfully samples his earlier track from the album Low, A New Career in a New Town, the context of which adds a lovely twist to his last ever song in hindsight.
While the music is inconsistent, the artistic merit of this album is without parallel, even more so in the wake of Bowie's death. Launched before Bowie's illness had been revealed, fans and critics spent weeks picking through the lyrics and symbolism in these tracks. Theories abound that the title track was about ISIS, or the cult of celebrity, or other such intellectually complex ideas, and these analyses all contain merit.
But the album's meaning changed completely on the day Bowie died (exactly as predicted in the lyrics to the title track come to think of it). Suddenly people went back and each song contained an entirely new meaning, sounded entirely different. How all this subtext was hidden in these tracks, only to suddenly become clear in an instant of revelation is quite the accomplishment. It was like an entirely new album being released.
This was quite intentional, one album, two completely different contexts in the blink of an eye. David Bowie managed to turn his own death into a form of artistic expression, a feat which is frankly awe inspiring.
For this reason at least, Blackstar will go down as a very memorable moment in a legendary career. Blackstar is a fine piece of art, a fascinating work that requires listening to at least once, even if the songs themselves are unlikely to receive much play-time on our iPods.
Must Listen :
I Can't Give Everything Away
'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
Tuesday, 5 April 2016
The nomination process for the 2016 Presidential elections is now well underway. Last week we took a look at the Democratic Primary and made a key endorsement. Now it is time to turn our attention to Republican side of the contest. Initially the plan was to do an overview of the candidates, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, and then in the spirit of fairness make an endorsement in much the same way as we did for the Democratic Primary. Unfortunately, after much consideration the Ephemeric is unable to make an endorsement at this time. Here's why.
Introducting Donald J Trump
Of course, this piece is going to be about one person in particular. Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump has undeniably turned his campaign into a pop culture phenomenon in a way that few politicians ever have. Everyone is talking about him. Trump memes have infiltrated internet culture all over the world. Recently on watching a technology live stream from Sweden, a joke was made in the format of "Make [blank] great again!". It's everywhere.
But when you get over the humour in the situation the fact remains, this is really happening, one of America's two main political parties is really on the verge of making Donald Trump their representative in the next election.
This is, after all, a man who has gone on record stating that women should be punished for having abortions, that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, and who wants to build a wall between America and its neighbouring countries (and responded to criticism from the former President of Mexico with the petulant "that wall just got ten feet higher!"). This is a man who has openly condoned violence at his rallies, repeatedly insulted numerous women in politics and the media based on their physical appearance, and mocked physically handicapped people for "looking funny". This man has talked about his penis in Presidential debates because he felt sensitive (and weirdly obsessed) about the size of his hands, attacked his opponent for having an "uglier" wife than him, and debates his opponents by giving them nicknames like "little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" as a substitute for policy arguments. He's attacked Hillary Clinton for not being able to "satisfy her husband", accused news anchor Megyn Kelly from having "blood coming out of her wherever", and reassured those critical of his tone on race issues by asserting that he's confident that "at least some Mexicans" are not rapists and criminals.
This is a man who lies pathologically. The widely respected Pulitzer prize winning Politifact rates 78% of his public statements as at least mostly false (compared to 65% for Ted Cruz and 28% for Hillary Clinton). His lies are numerous and diverse, ranging from denying statements that are present for the whole world to see on his website or in previous interviews, to his ever shifting excuses for the criminal conduct of his campaign manager, completely made up statistics, doctored videos claiming to show, among other things, immigrants pouring over the border from Mexico (footage actually from Africa), and Muslim Americans cheering 9/11 (never actually happened). Indeed one could spend all day going over the many things Trump has said and done which are outrageously and demonstrably untrue, but instead I'll just leave you with a partial list.
On the issues, Trump has gone from a moderate pro-choice New York Democrat to a supposedly hardcore conservative. He has talked about ending the department of education and rolling back Federal Government provided healthcare, only to seconds later state unequivocally that healthcare and education are among the most important services the Federal Government provides. He has proposed a trade war with China, advocated committing war crimes by bombing civilian centres in the Middle East, and proposes outright banning any use of the term "climate change" in America. From one sentence to the next he calls for interventionism, then isolationism, big Government, then small Government, liberalism then conservatism. His comments throughout his campaign have been incoherent and inconsistent at best, delusional and dangerous at worst. He either has a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of what he suggests, or he simply doesn't care and sees policy as merely a soundbyte to win votes.
It's an embarrassment for America, but in particular for his party. So much so that the normally lock-step party unity is dangerously close to shattering, to the point where prominent establishment Republicans won't commit to supporting Trump should he win the nomination. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus cut a hilarious and pathetically tragic figure before the recent debates as he attempted to grit his teeth and put on a show of cheerful unity in order to gin up enthusiasm ahead of a Trump win. He has become a laughing stock, along with every other Republican official who has held their tongue on this farce.
The point we're trying to make here is simply, how is he winning his primary? The Republican Party has its problems, but surely they have a few credible politicians left? He has said more than enough completely outrageous, insane, and frankly offensive things to disqualify anyone else from the Presidency, and carries himself with a demeanour that's more 6 year old child than Presidential, and yet he has been handily leading his party's primary from the start.
So just what the hell is going on?
How did Trump dominate the GOP?
The short answer is that this is simply the inevitable culmination of years of Republican Party policy. The Trump movement that has overrun the party and threatens its very existence is a monster of their own making.
But let's wind things back a little bit, to 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. The administration of George W Bush had gone out in scandal, considered by some to be among the very worst in American history. His controversies were numerous, and he left office with record low approval ratings in the 20s, and a whole new generation of Americans rallied against him and his party in a way not seen for decades. The Republican Party could have taken this moment to re-evaluate, to learn from their mistakes and reign in the party's excess and what many people viewed as a flirtation with extremism, but instead they doubled down, and went deep into denial.
In the eyes of a public they had already alienated, Republicans doubled down on religion and anti-intellectualism, they doubled down on class warfare and intolerance, they abused the powers of Congress to reach unprecedented levels of administrative obstruction. They did all of this with the explicit and frequently stated intention of damaging the Obama Presidency as much as possible, not even bothering with the pretense of acting in the interests of the country. Partisan politics taken to a whole new extreme. The clear conceit being that if Obama's Presidency failed, it would make their own maligned administration look good by comparison.
The crux is that in their mad attempt at self-vindication, they have forced themselves into increasingly extreme and indefensible positions. They have willingly ceded the middle ground to Obama's Democrats by necessity so they can continue to attack everything he does, and the more reasonable his position, the further they have to shift out to the extreme. Anyone will tell you that this is unthinkably shortsighted politics. The apparent intention was to fire up the most fanatical, and therefore most likely to vote, fringes of their own party with a view to short-term success, but there has been seemingly no thought given to re-establishing themselves in the long-term.
Thus by its own volition the Republican Party has become dependent for survival on the rage of fanatics. The party has veered so far to the right that traditionally Republican policies (like Obamacare), conservative judges (Merrick Garland), and any Republican who even so much as touches the Obama administration (Jon Hunstman) are now considered far too liberal for the party. Even qualified, reasonable politicians like Mitt Romney were forced to take indefensibly fringe positions in the primary in order to get nominated.
What used to be the party of moderate fiscal conservatives like Reagan and Romney is now the party of Jim Crow and David Duke. If you don't believe that, just have a look at the Jim Crow-like voter discrimination policies being prioritised by Republicans all over the country, and just look at how Trump refuses to criticize KKK leader Duke, because he knows all too well that the racist vote is a big part of his voter base.
The pyschology of a Trump voter
But don't fool yourself into thinking that these voters are all just racist or homophobic, those are simply examples of something far more fundamental about the nature of fanaticism.
Now bear with us as we talk science for a moment, but there exists a strange phenomenon, one that has been illustrated time and time again by independent studies. When someone is proven wrong, rather than altering ones beliefs to incorporate the new information, the tendency in human nature is to do the opposite, to hold onto those false beliefs with even greater conviction. It's called the backfire effect, and the more extreme and deeply held the belief, the bigger the effect. The psychology here is simple; people are insecure by nature, their worldviews form a part of their self-identity, and when that identity is challenged they fight back. The problem is that the deeper one entrenches one's self, the more complex the mass of ever increasing schema becomes. This is essentially the textbook definition of how fanaticism develops. This whole movement is pure partisanship.
So ultimately these voters are all unified by a single thing: a worldview that is out of step with mainstream reality (whether it is archaic bigoted notions, or merely a strong adherence to the conservative values that were so spectacularly repudiated by the voters) combined with an overpowering need for self-validation in the face of a world that no longer makes sense to them.
This is exactly what we have seen with the Republican party these past eight years, a single-minded obsession with self-vindication. So it is no surprise that their new direction would find them kinship with these desperate fringe personalities. It should be clear now that, by the very nature of fanaticism, the deeper the Republican party dug itself, the more and more extreme its fringe elements would become. This has led directly to the problems they have today.
Why the Republican Party created Frankenstein's Monster
Simply put, these voters are easily manipulated. Why bother going to the effort of crafting technically detailed policy, trying to pull off the difficult feat of appealing to multiple voting blocs, when you can get a whole lot of people to vote by simply appealing to fear? Why deny yourself the financial support of sleazy lobbyists whose interests might be at odds with the voters, when you can simply talk about "scary Muslims" and then not even have to risk revealing such unpopular policy to the distracted public?
In the Republican Party's apparent shortsightedness and cynicism they have spent eight years dredging the lowest common denominator for the sake of short-term gain. Now those extremists are all the party has left, so it is absolutely no surprise to see them take over completely.
Back in 2009 The Ephemeric saw this trend developing, and predicted it would bring about the demise of the Republican Party, a claim which at the time was ridiculed by some of our readers, but now appears eerily prescient. A split has been developing for years between the mainstream Republicans and this fervent fringe movement. Mainstream Republicans have been tolerating the fringe in so far as they can manipulate and take advantage of them, and the fringe has been sticking with a party they really disdain, because their politicians have been saying hateful bigoted things on the sly with a wink and a nudge.
The inmates take over the asylum
Here's the difference with Trump. When you're a relatively credible mainstream Republican, you want to stoke these fires without explicitly appearing to be extremist yourself, hence why you use code words like "religious freedom" when you actually mean not allowing homosexuals to marry, or talk about "birth certificates" when you really mean "hey look at that black guy" (ever wonder why Obama's opponents were so obsessed with his middle name?). You have to be deft enough not to appear too crazy to the mainstream electorate, while still letting the extreme fringe know you've got their back.
Trump doesn't do that. He has gone full-steam into crazy town, saying things that the Republican Party already knows this fringe base wants to hear, but that no sane Republican would ever be willing to say explicitly for fear of alienating the more moderate voters they need in order to win a general election. Why would he do this in spite of the conventional wisdom to which all his peers adhere? Partly it's shortsightedness, Trump has been winging this entire primary, so it's entirely in character that he would focus on crossing this initial hurdle before worrying about the general. But partly it's this: Donald Trump thinks the voters are idiots.
You can see it plainly in the language he uses, simplistic, childlike words and phrases. Instead of describing specific policy, it's just "really really good, really terrific". All nuance is gone, instead everything is defined by either "winning" or "losing". We apparently need to "win at trade" and "win at immigration" whatever the fuck that even means. Rather than specify criticisms against his opponents, they're just "losers", or he gives them childish nicknames. The reason he has taken so easily to internet memes is because that's literally his entire campaign, childish slogans and catchphrases, "we don't win anymore!", "make America great again!".
The Trump Coalition
And therein lies the heart of the Trump coalition. It's not just a case of bigots hearing bigoted things and giving him their support. His base comes from a wide variety of emotionally insecure fringe voters who are desperately seeking self-validation. These voters stand for absolutely nothing. They don't care that Trump talks about healthcare proposals that sound identical to Obamacare, they don't care that he criticizes Republican pillars like Bush or the Iraq War, and they sure as hell don't care about the obvious contradictions in Trump's few policy positions. In their extreme partisanship these people seek only one thing: validation. They just want to win. Trump is right to focus so heavily on that word, because that's the number one selling point to them.
These down and out people just want to win the election to vindicate their views, their intellect, and their whole worldview that has been so fundamentally challenged in recent years. This is why they are so obsessed with Trump's braggadocio catchphrases, his name calling (Trump fans have taken to calling his detractors "Cucks", a slang term for someone whose wife is cheating on them), his fixation on winners and losers. The entire subtext of the Trump campaign is "don't be a loser, back me and everyone will know you're a winner!" It's the same basic psychology that we've already discussed ad nauseam, and Trump is only too happy to appeal to this baser instinct.
And yet the Republican Party still tries to convince itself that their policies and the "mainstream" appeal of conservatism are the reasons behind the enthusiasm of their voters. They are wrong, this Trumpism is radically different to anything they have ever seen. Trump is a salesman first and foremost, his entire brand is based on the notion that he's a winner and if you buy what he's selling then you can be a winner too. The Republican Party is selling the same old snake oil to voters whose motivations it has gravely misinterpreted, Donald Trump is selling validation to an audience that badly craves it.
Ultimately what's happening right now is something that people have been predicting for years. The Republican Party in its desperation has been digging itself into a hole of crazy, and now they've completely lost control of the movement. They spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars stoking fear and anger thinking it would somehow lead to permanent resurgence. It hasn't, and now they face a very real existential threat.
As it stands, it is almost impossible for anyone other than Trump to win the nomination before the convention. Even if the party establishment gets its way and it comes down to a contested convention, that gives them the impossible choice of backing Trump, or overturning the democratic process by selecting someone nobody voted for, a move which would likely split the party permanently. And if Trump does get the nomination, then there's the question of whether to support him, and in his victory essentially hand over the soul of the party to Trumpism, potentially dooming the conservative movement for a generation.
It's a cruel twist of fate that in order to save the conservative movement, they might have to give up this election. Let Trump get the nomination, and then let him lose in order to nip this Trumpist movement in the bud before it begins. But the cruelest thing of all is that whatever happens, they can have no one to blame but themselves.
Saturday, 19 March 2016
With the nomination process for the 2016 Presidential elections now well underway, the time has come for The Ephemeric to turn its attention to the matter at hand, beginning with a look at the Primary for the Democratic Party. So let's get this out of the way: The Ephemeric endorses Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party's nomination for President.
First, let no one deny the unexpected success of opponent Bernie Sanders. An outsider and registered Independent, who proudly describes himself by that most anathema of political terms in America, "socialist", few would have expected Bernie to mount a serious challenge. But the Senator from Vermont has defied all expectation, and in doing so has reframed what would otherwise have been a largely symbolic coronation of Clinton into a genuine debate over the progressive values of the Democratic Party.
And let's be clear, we love Bernie. There is no other politician in America so consistent in principle with the integrity to actually stand by his words. When Mitch McConnell filibusters a bill on the Senate floor he puffs up his chest, and then just goes home two minutes later, then there's Bernie who sticks to his guns and stands on that floor talking nine hours straight for the benefit of his constituents.
Sanders is a gentleman and a committed champion for progress, but most importantly he's drawn attention to one of the crucial issues of our times, the out of control increase of income inequality. The situation is bad, normal people can barely afford to live in major cities, property ownership is a pipe dream unless you were lucky enough to inherit some, and the "bare minimum" for employees is increasingly to work for longer hours for less pay and be grateful for it. The system is broken and without urgent attention will descend further into outright exploitation.
So why have we endorsed Hillary Clinton, only to spend the last three paragraphs singing the praises of her opponent? The fact is that being an advocate for a single issue doesn't negate the other factors in choosing the best person for President of the United States. Case and point, Sanders' longstanding support of gun availability and draconian proposals to tax reform.
Hillary Clinton is very much an Obama Democrat, finding herself aligned with his brand of reasonable, realistic policy backed by empirical data and expert analysis. She recognises the need for economic reform, but at the same time appreciates the inherent risk to growth that comes with regulation and uncertainty. It's a complex issue requiring nuanced action, and that's what Hillary brings to the table. Bernie Sanders is too single-minded, and too black and white in his worldview. He frames the debate in a populist mind, a conspiracy of the "wealthy elites" that can easily be scapegoated as a cause for all our problems. This isn't the real world, it's simplistic and misguided at best, manipulative and disingenuous at worst. I have no doubt that he believes his cause is just, but his puffed up language comes off as a cheap way to garner support.
Then there is the matter of experience. Between her time in the White House as First Lady, her time in Congress as the Senator for New York, and her time on the world stage as the Secretary of State, Hillary enters this campaign as probably the most experienced candidate for President in the history of the Republic, with a broad array of skills and knowledge. It's an easy transition for a woman already familiar with the latest briefings, a distinct advantage going into an election.
The fact is that experience counts. Even Obama, who has generally been a good President (a more full analysis to come closer to the end of his term) proved as much with his naïveté in trying to work across the aisle with Republicans in good faith during his first two years, only to find out the hard way that there is more than just ideology preventing the Republicans from compromising.
Add to this the general importance of this election, with progress in the nation being perennially held back by the politics of partisan obstruction, and 2 or 3 Supreme Court positions likely to be filled by the next President. A good sweep for one side in this election could shape the ideology of the country for decades.
With this being the case, it's all the more important that we select a President who represents the moderate core of the American people, not just the loudest minority of one of its wings. And that really is the crux of my biggest issue in this Primary. Bernie's campaign is targeting the extreme base to rile them up with an "us vs them" narrative, built around a fictional bogeyman, on the cynical notion that the party that wins in November will not be the one that wins independents, but the one that gets their fanatical base to turn out the most. For lack of a better comparison, his campaign is being run like a Republican campaign. He's basically trying to generate the left wing equivalent of the Tea Party, targeting the angry and irrational. It's this classic Republican strategy to smother all available information to give the public the impression that whatever you say is generally accepted consensus. If every single comment and news article you see supports a falsehood, you'll be more likely to believe it regardless of fact. In summary: fake it 'til you make it. It was wrong when Republicans did it, and it's wrong when Sanders' campaign does it.
Now again to be clear, Bernie Sanders is a good man, but his campaign staff and most vocal supporters are too often being shitty and dishonest, and you only need to venture online to Reddit or other message boards to see the fervent, ignorant propaganda storm that is being generated in his name. It should also be a red flag to all progressives to see his campaign forming a bizarre alliance with the extreme right wing media like Breitbart, Newsmax and The Washington Times to flood the internet with anti-Hillary material. Rest assured, if those Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell boosting gutter trash are the ones working for him, he's not the candidate for you.
But this decision is ultimately about Hillary. Targeting the extreme fringe of the party will only serve to drive the parties even further apart. Hillary's campaign is focused on what is real, what is true, her policy is sound and it appeals to the regular, mostly centrist American citizen. It continues eight years of successful and relatively popular policy of the current President and puts our country in the hands of an extremely capable leader going forward during challenging times. As far as this Primary is concerned, there's only one woman for the job.
Wednesday, 9 March 2016
Welcome back to The Ephemeric's 2016 Hot List. This week we will be having a look at the most exciting theatrical productions coming to the stage in the coming year.
2015's blockbuster event was Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet, one of the most hyped productions in years, with a marketing blitz rarely seen in theatre. It didn't disappoint either, with strong reviews and a legacy that sits comfortably alongside some of the classic Hamlet productions over the years. Other news included a return to form for the recently maligned Royal Court Theatre, whose 2015 saw a much needed string of critically well received productions. Meanwhile in New York, Nick Payne's stunning Constellations made the jump across the pond from the West End, to great acclaim.
2016 looks like it's going to be even better. In fact there are so many upcoming productions exciting us here at The Ephemeric that we are expanding our Hot List to 10 entries this year, and even that required some careful consideration. So here's our list of the top 10 theatrical productions to keep an eye on in 2016, starting with number 10:
10. "wonder.land" by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini, at the National Theatre
We begin with one of the wackier entries on the list, this musical based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, simply titled wonder.land.
The creation of none other than Damon Albarn, one of Britain's most celebrated pop stars, wonder.land transposes the themes of the original text into the internet age, journeying down the virtual rabbit hole.
Originally starting life at the Manchester International Festival, wonder.land now transfers to the National Theatre in London. It promises to be one of the most interesting new musicals of the year, with one of the best songwriters in the business behind it.
9. "No Man's Land" by Harold Pinter, at the Duke of York Theatre
Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, two of the all time greats, and a veritable dream team of stage actors.
Fresh from a successful Broadway run of this adaptation of No Man's Land, the classic Harold Pinter play, a London transfer has long been mooted, and now it is fact, with the Duke of York Theatre landing the gig in the Autumn of 2016.
The two celebrated thespians have between them a wide array of notable credits and awards, and stage chemistry boosted by a real life friendship that has lasted years. This has all the makings of a classic.
8. "Groundhog Day" by Tim Minchin, at the Old Vic
2016 marks the inaugural season for The Old Vic's new artistic director Matthew Warchus, and that guy is really pulling out all the stops with a fantastic lineup.
First on our list from the Old Vic is Groundhog Day, the adaptation of the beloved classic movie starring Bill Murray. This new interpretation stars Andy Karl, and believe it or not it is a full-blown musical.
Seem like a strange idea? It is, but it has some serious talent behind it, including the screenwriter of the original movie Danny Rubin. Most excitingly though is Tim Minchin, fresh off his widely acclaimed and expectation defying Matilda musical on the London stage. If nothing else, people will be queuing around the block to see what he does next.
7. "American Psycho: The Musical" by Duncan Sheik, at TBA
Speaking of musicals that sounded like a weird idea at first but turned out to be a perfect fit for its source material: American Psycho: The Musical.
Originally starting out as a kickstarter created by Duncan Sheik, this production isn't strictly new, having debuted at the Almeida two years ago, and since moved to Broadway in New York.
A switch to the London West End has long been suggested, and the rumour is that we will see this happen at some point late in 2016. This is a perfect opportunity for anyone who missed the initial run to see what all the fuss is about.
6. "Young Chekhov" Trilogy by Anton Chekhov and David Hare, at the National Theatre
Here's some fun for those looking for a day out at the theatre, a trilogy of plays by Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest playwrights of all time, back to back.
The plays in question are Platonov, Ivanov, and The Seagull. Each can be booked individually, but for the real hardcore theatre goers there is the option to see all of them in a single day, Platonov at 11:45pm, Ivanov at 4pm, and The Seagull at 8pm. Of course, this comes with a selection of dinner and restaurant packages.
This might seem like a lot of work, but with three great plays, being run by one of the best production companies, and a nice dinner thrown in? Sounds like rollicking good fun to us. Indeed these sorts of "theatre days out" seem to be becoming quite fashionable now, as long-time readers will remember the really quite exceptional eight hour long production of Gatz just a few years ago.
5. "X" by Alistair McDowall, at The Royal Court Theatre
You don't see a lot of theatre in the genre of science fiction, for obvious reasons, but then Alistair McDowall is not a writer who has shown himself to be concerned with such practicalities in a body of work that includes Lovecraftian horror set in Manchester, and wild adventures of childhood fantasy.
His newest production for the Royal Court, X, is set in a desolate, remote research base on Pluto, dealing with themes of isolation and introspective existentialism. Beyond this not a whole lot is known, but what we've heard so far sounds tantalising.
McDowall is fast becoming one of our favourite new playwrights, this looks to be another exciting production, definitely worth checking out.
4. "Lazarus" by David Bowie, at TBA
Lazarus is one of the final works of David Bowie, the Starman musical that had long been rumoured but never delivered. The realisation of one of Bowie's last long-standing goals in his career, albeit one that at the moment can only be witnessed in the indie theatre scene of New York.
A sequel to the cult-classic Bowie film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Lazarus follows Newton (the star of said film) as he struggles with his notoriety and lonely, eternal life. More importantly, it features a soundtrack full of classic Bowie tunes, and a cast which features Michael C Hall of Dexter fame.
Following its much hyped New York run, a transfer back to Bowie's true home of London has been officially confirmed to be in the works. Details are thin on the ground at the moment, but stay tuned, it's going to be a big one when it does land.
3. "The Master Builder" by Henrik Ibsen, at the Old Vic
Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece The Master Builder, veteran playwright David Hare, and the legendary award winning film and theatre actor Ralph Fiennes, it's a winning combination.
The tent-pole of the Old Vic's lineup in 2016, The Master Builder is easily one of the most hyped productions of the year anywhere in London.
The story of Ibsen's master architect who falls in love with a young country girl has beguiled audiences for years, hailed as one of the great psychological works of theatre history.
Early buzz has been glowing, and tickets are selling out fast so book now while you can.
2. "Elegy" by Nick Payne, at the Donmar Warehouse
Here's an exciting one. The legendary Donmar is putting on a new play, Elegy, written by Nick Payne, the award winning playwright who brought us Constellations, recently a smash hit of the Royal Court, which moved on to an equally successful run in New York starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Elegy's bold concept posits a world of incredible medical advances, mastery of the human mind, and radical life extension technologies, specifically with a view to the consequences of such advanced technology, not all of them positive. Arts fans will recognise Zoe Wanamaker, who's been in films such as Harry Potter, My Week with Marilyn, and any number of award winning performances on the stage.
It's one of the hottest shows of the year, so grab tickets while you can.
1. "The Threepenny Opera" by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, at the National Theatre
A darkly comic new translation of the classic Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera. One of the 20th Century's landmark pieces of musical theatre, delving into the nature of philosophy, capitalism, and darker side of human nature.
This new production courtesy of the National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear in the starring role, and the direction of Rufus Norris, fresh off his successful Everyman production in 2015.
There's a lot of buzz about this new interpretation. The result will surely be one of the blockbuster events of the London stage in 2016. Definitely one not to miss.
So there you have it folks: The 2016 Hot List. Here's to a fantastic year, and the Hot List will return in 2017!
Sunday, 28 February 2016
Today we take a quick break from our Hot List of 2016 series to bring you a last minute preview regarding the Academy Awards ceremony this weekend.
This Sunday, Hollywood's famous Dolby Theatre will once again play host to the biggest day on the cinema calendar, the Oscars. People all over the world will tune in for that most tragically popular of pastimes, celebrity watching, followed by four hours of the film industry's traditionally self-congratulatory exercise in PR.
The host for this year will be the somewhat unexpected Chris Rock. Rock's acerbic humour will no doubt liven things up for what is ordinarily a pretty humdrum and forced attempt at entertainment, though one expects he'll have to tone things down about 90% in order to appease the show producers, which is too bad.
Long-time readers will remember the Ephemeric's impressive track record at calling these awards, so it is no small statement when we say that this year looks to be one of the most unpredictable in memory. For the first time in years there are several races that are too difficult to call. For the first time in over a decade, the three most predictive pre-Oscar awards have each gone to different movies, suggesting a close contest ahead.
Nevertheless here we have for you, our loyal readers, our predictions for the big night. You may not have seen the big films this year, or be familiar with the latest hype tearing through tinseltown; if so consider the following a crib sheet for what lies ahead this weekend, and perhaps even a sneak peek at who might just be walking away with the big prize.
- The Big Short
- Bridge of Spies
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Martian
- The Revenant
And the winner: The Revenant (but too close to call really)
This is one of the most difficult races we've ever called in the Academy Awards. The big three predictors for victory in this prize are the Producers' Guild Award (won by The Big Short), Directors' Guild Award (The Revenant), and Screen Actors' Guild Award for best ensemble (Spotlight), with preference given to the first two. So really it could (and will) be any of those three films. The PGA is probably the single biggest predictor, the DGA more closely predicts Best Director, but it just so happens that Best Director and Best Picture often go to the same film. Our head tells us that the winner of the PGA usually wins this, but taking into account the hype that has built for The Revenant in recent weeks, and the facts that it has more nominations than any other film, and Best Director often wins Best Picture, our gut is leaning towards The Revenant.
Who should really win: The Big Short
The Revenant has a lot of hype going for it, and indeed it was one of our top picks for the most essential movies of 2015 on last year's Hot List, but honestly it left us a little disappointed. Undeniably beautiful to look at, yet nowhere near as deep or complex as it seems to think it is, and with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 82% it would rank among the lowest films ever to win Best Picture. Instead it was The Big Short that blew us away, and surprised us the most. A contender for last year's Hot List, we found it hard to believe that the director of Anchorman and similar tacky comedies would produce something of real artistic merit, but we were wrong. There have been several great films about the financial crisis of 2008, but this is the best, and crucially the most accessible, breaking down complex and fairly boring technical concepts in ways that are easy to understand, and shockingly entertaining.
- Adam McKay – The Big Short
- George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
- Lenny Abrahamson – Room
- Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
And the winner: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - The Revenant
However we are much more confident about predicting this one. Winning the Director's Guild award makes Inarritu a virtual lock for the best director's gong. This would make Inarritu the first director ever to win back to back Oscars for Best Director.
Who should really win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - The Revenant
Yeah we'll go with this one. Boy's got talent what can we say.
- Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
- Matt Damon – The Martian
- Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
- Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
- Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl
And the winner: Leonardo DiCaprio - The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio has won just about every award this year. There is no doubt whatsoever that he will win this Oscar, whether he deserves to is another matter. Grunting, screaming and crying for 2 hours does not make a performance deep or complex. Somewhere along the way this mindset developed that the best acting is the most physically demanding acting; who can lose the most weight, who can torture their body the most for the sake of the film. Overwrought melodrama has become more prized than nuanced, intellectual acting. DiCaprio's performance isn't bad, but there rarely seems to be more to it than "hey look how really really hard it was to make this movie", and at no point do you get the feeling that you are looking at anything other than Leonardo DiCaprio at his most award-desperate. Instead one gets the impression that this is being given to Leo simply because it's "his turn" as recognition for all the other roles for which he has been nominated and not won, which is a great reminder of how utterly vain and pointless these awards really are.
Who should really win: Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs
Cranston's Trumbo would be a good shout, and a considerably more impressive and subtle performance than DiCaprio's, but in our view the clear best performance of the year has been Fassbender's Steve Jobs. A lot of eyebrows were raised at Fassbender's casting following the protracted and well publicized difficulties in finding a lead actor, especially since Fassbender doesn't really look like Jobs at all. Somehow Fassbender managed to defy all the critics and give so full an embodiment of the late Apple CEO that by the end of the film Fassbender looks more like Jobs than Jobs himself. A beguiling performance and one that truly would be worthy of the Oscar.
- Cate Blanchett – Carol
- Brie Larson – Room
- Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
- Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
- Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
And the winner: Brie Larson - Room
Another one which is easy to predict, Larson has all the buzz, and all the awards. Saorise Ronan is the only other person who has won anything major, but nowhere near enough to suggest an upset. Larson will win this one.
Who should really win: Brie Larson - Room
Yeah ok, we'll go along with this one.
Best Supporting Actor
- Christian Bale – The Big Short
- Tom Hardy – The Revenant
- Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
- Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
- Sylvester Stallone – Creed
And the winner: Sylvester Stallone - Creed
I don't think anyone would have predicted Stallone to win an Oscar a year ago, but here we are. The hype and awards given thus far have been clear, the industry is set to recognise Stallone's long career in Hollywood with a little bit of old fashioned cronyism.
Who should really win: Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies
Rylance was the early favourite for the prize; an accomplished stage and film actor giving one of the most memorable performances in any category, and he deserves it as well. However when Hollywood decides on something the signs are clear, and so far Rylance's only major award has been the BAFTA, which typically favours British actors, so his chances are slim in spite of whether he deserves it.
Best Supporting Actress
- Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
- Rooney Mara – Carol
- Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
- Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
- Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
And the winner: Alicia Vikander - The Danish Girl
A bit of a strange one this, given that this isn't even Vikander's best performance of the year (that honour belongs to Ex Machina), but this contest narrowly looks to be heading her way. The closest runner up is going to be Kate Winslet, close enough that she could realistically win this, though a great deal of that comes from her recent victory at the BAFTAs. Like we said, BAFTA tends to bias towards the Brits, so we still narrowly consider Vikander the favourite.
Who should really win: Kate Winslet - Steve Jobs
Vikander's performance is perfectly fine, but fairly unremarkable. We're going with the BAFTAs on this one, Winslet's portrayal of Apple stalwart Joanna Hoffman was one of the brightest parts of the Steve Jobs film, and one of the strongest performances of the year.
Best Original Screenplay
- Bridge of Spies – Coen Brothers
- Ex Machina – Alex Garland
- Inside Out – Pete Docter
- Spotlight – Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
- Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman
And the winner: Spotlight - Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
The obvious choice, especially given its win at the Screen Writers' Guild Awards, and a fine choice by our reckoning. Spotlight was an excellent film worthy of all its plaudits, and the script does a remarkable job of turning relatively dry and bookish material into something quite riveting.
Who should really win: Ex Machina - Alex Garland
Spotlight is a fine film and top quality screenplay, but Ex Machina is one of the best we've seen in years, sublime in its simplicity, fierce in its intellect, and at times even weirdly humorous. A great concept, executed to near perfection.
Best Adapted Screenplay
- The Big Short – Adam McKay
- Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
- Carol – Phyllis Nagy
- The Martian – Drew Goddard
- Room – Emma Donoghue
And the winner: The Big Short - Adam McKay
Another SWGA winner this year, and dead cert to win the Oscar, especially given the huge buzz the film has received across other major categories. For someone to present what is really quite a technical, opaque subject in such a humorous and engaging fashion takes some real skill. As above, a fairly safe bet in our view.
Who should really win: The Big Short - Adam McKay
Fully deserved in our view, we agree.
So there you have it, The Ephemeric's picks for the year. Enjoy the Oscars this weekend, and when the results go exactly as we have predicted, remember that you heard it here first!
Friday, 19 February 2016
Hello and welcome back to the Hot List. This week we will turn our attention to videogames, previewing for you our loyal readers the most exciting videogames set for release in 2016.
In 2015 PC was king. Between Steam Machines, a burgeoning indie scene, and crowdfunded games including Kerbal Space Program and the still in development Star Citizen (which has now raised over $100 million in donations), this was the year where PC fought back against the presumption that consoles are the inevitable home of gaming. At the same time, 2015 saw some huge releases including the long awaited Fallout 4, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Just Cause 3 among several others.
For the year ahead the theme is "you ain't seen nothing yet". Let's preface the 2016 preview by acknowledging that many of this year's entries were on our list this time last year. Chalk this up to one of optimistic forecasting, the increasingly long development time in gaming, or the hype of such exciting sounding games, but these are all now set for release in 2016. If 2015 managed to be a good year for gaming despite many of its key titles slipping to 2016, then this year might just be even better.
So behold, the top 15 key videogames to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:
15. Doom (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)
We begin with a remnant from last year's list, Bethesda's reboot of the venerated Doom series.
Doom is of course one of the most famous videogames series of all time, known as the grandfather of the entire first person shooter genre, and in many ways, 3D perspective gaming as a whole.
Revealed in full at last year's E3 conference, Bethesda have slowly been showing off more and more footage, and sure enough Doom will run on the new idTech6 engine, and feature many of the somewhat old fashioned gameplay features that were characteristic of the original games.
Our concern is whether the attributes that made Doom so successful back in the early 1990s are still relevant in today's much changed gaming culture. Back then, gamers were mostly kids and teenagers, the perfect demographic for Doom's gratuitous violence and tastelessness, but if Duke Nukem Forever showed us anything it's that these kinds of thrills haven't aged well.
Release Date: May 13, 2016
14. Hearts of Iron IV (PC, Mac)
Paradox are on a roll right now. For years they have labored away on their absurdly complex historical strategy games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, and for years they've been largely ignored. With Crusader Kings 2 Paradox finally struck the commercial big time with a golden blend of rewarding depth and accessible gameplay, and Europa Universalis IV followed suit. Their next release aims to conjure up the same magic for another one of their franchises, with Hearts of Iron IV.
For newcomers, Paradox specialise in sandbox style grand strategy games. What makes a Paradox title stand out from say Civilisation or Total War is the dedication to meaningful complexity. These simulations are about more than just armies fighting one another, and fully model diplomacy, personal politics, culture, economy, and countless other variables which ensure that each game world is utterly unique to the player, and completely engrossing, while allowing a staggering array of gameplay options to pursue. The Hearts of Iron series specifically applies this ethos to a 20th Century, World War I and II setting.
If Paradox can make Hearts of Iron as accessible as they have their other series, then this will be another golden strategy title for players to sink their teeth and time into. Release date has not been confirmed but is believed to be late in the second quarter of this year.
Release Date: TBA 2016
13. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)
One of the more notable Kickstarter success stories. Kingdom Come: Deliverance started with a simple premise. Publishers refuse to release games set in medieval times unless it features magic, dragons and silly things like this, why not make a game in a realistic medieval setting?
That's the idea behind Kingdom Come: Deliverance. A roleplaying game set in 15th Century Bohemia, with period-accurate clothing, technology, culture, and even going so far as to bring in medieval experts and historians to program realistic tactics and fighting styles. But this is not just a period combat simulator, it is a truly sandbox world in which players can pursue their goals as a warrior, a trader, or take a more diplomatic approach.
Depending on how these different gameplay elements come together this could be a very unique experience. There aren't enough games that display an interest in real history and show the kind of attention to truly bring alive such a setting. All the signs so far are that Warhorse Studios are very committed to this vision, and judging by the millions of dollars raised there are a lot of gamers who are too. The title is set for release by this autumn.
Release Date: Fall 2016
12. RollerCoaster Tycoon World (PC)
The return of another much celebrated franchise. RollerCoaster Tycoon World is the latest entry of one of the biggest cult hit series in the entire industry.
As with the other games in the series, players design and manage a theme park, with the ability to place shops, rides, scenery and most notably design roller coasters down to the very small details. The game will be from a 3D perspective much like RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, as opposed to the 2D isometric view of the first two games, while new features include the ability to ride your rides from a first person perspective.
Atari have somewhat dug a hole for themselves on this one, with the now infamous mobile-only version of the game, titled as RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 being announced before the full PC version. This much maligned turd of a game was rammed full of absurd microtransactions, becoming pretty much a parody of the worst examples of the cliche of manipulative mobile games that are such a blight on the platform. Such was the outcry and critical panning of this title that Atari had to announce the full PC version ahead of schedule and rebrand it as RollerCoaster Tycoon World in order to avoid association with the previous debacle.
Things only went from bad to worse, as the reveal of early footage was met with decidedly mixed reception, prompting a series of behind the scenes changes that sees this game now on its fourth developer. From what we've seen more recently though, the new blood does seem to be turning things around. We shall have to wait and see.
Release Date: Early 2016
11. Starbound (PC, Mac)
A veteran of Hot Lists gone by, Chucklefish Games' hugely ambitious crowdfunded indie title Starbound has been kicking around since 2014 with no sign of a release, but recent updates seem to confirm that a 2016 release is (hopefully) on the cards, with recent official blog posts hinting at an imminent version 1.0.
Starbound is essentially a block-building game in the mold of Minecraft or Terraria, featuring a procedurally generated universe with a near infinite number of planets, each of which is the size of Terraria's entire world. Each planet has its own environment and it's own procedurally generated plant and animal life, making each one completely unique. Players explore these planets, mine for materials, and can build whatever they can imagine. Starbound additionally adds structure and narrative that we typically haven't seen from other games in the genre. There's a quest system, a colonization system, and a fully crafted backstory. Every planet is full of secrets to discover and NPC characters to meet.
The scale of universe that this design creates is unparalleled in gaming, and allows players to play in pretty much any manner they choose. A player can assemble a team (either singleplayer with NPCs or multiplayer) and explore the universe hopping from planet to planet, or build huge houses, military bases, farms, shops, cities, theme parks, anything they can imagine (and the creativity seen in the work the community has produced so far during the alpha testing is remarkable), the possibilities are limited only by the player's imagination. This is something no game has ever fully achieved, and if Starbound manages to pull it of, the result will be something very memorable indeed.
Starbound is available in it's alpha state on PC and Mac, but the full version is expected by the end of this year.
Release Date: Late 2016
10. Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
Now here's a big event in gaming. The highly anticipated and mystifyingly delayed return of the Star Fox franchise. Even though Nintendo consider Star Fox to be one of their most prominent homegrown IPs, it has been bizarrely under-utilised. Indeed aside from a few handheld games, there hasn't been a proper Star Fox game since 2005, and even then it wasn't a fully fledged, in-house version. Incredibly, Nintendo themselves haven't made a real flagship Star Fox game since the days of the Nintendo 64.
According to franchise (and indeed most other Nintendo franchise) creator Shigeru Miyamoto, the reason has been difficulty to nail down the best way to take advantage of the unique Wii hardware in the context of a Star Fox game. But now, with the Wii U's unique gamepad, inspiration has finally struck, and a new Star Fox game is on the way sometime this year.
As with the classic entries in the series the game will be focused on aerial combat, using the new gamepad's gyroscopic controls and second-screen functionality to shake up the way players target enemies. Additional gameplay will include other vehicles including the Landmaster tank, and a two-legged walker robot.
The key addition here appears to be the use of the gamepad as a second screen, but it comes at a cost, with the game's graphics severely limited by the necessity to render fully on two displays at once. Indeed early footage has been met with a glut of criticism over its very basic appearance, low resolution textures, and sharp corners. We will have to see if the design choice was worth it.
Release Date: April 22, 2016
9. Dishonored 2 (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
It's a good time to be a Bethesda shareholder, with Fallout 4 last year, and Doom already on the books for this year. But the more exciting of their expected titles this year is Dishonored 2, the sequel to 2012's surprise smash hit.
On its surface Dishonored may have looked like your standard stealth/action game, but between its spectacularly intricate open level design, and the admirably immersive world-building, the end product was something much more special.
The sequel looks to be more of the same, with new locations, and a new character to bolster the strong core gameplay. If they can build on the foundations of what they have created then this could be one of the top releases of 2016.
Release Date: TBA 2016
8. Star Citizen (PC)
The mother of all crowdfunding success stories, Star Citizen has so far rasied over $100 million, and that amount is growing steadily every day. What makes this all the more remarkable is that people are throwing their money at Cloud Imperium Games despite the fact that only a few conceptual game-modes have been made available so far. So why all the excitement and hype?
Star Citizen is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, a game design legend from the early days of PC gaming most famous for his space-based combat simulations such as Wing Commander and Freelancer. Star Citizen is Roberts' big comeback to gaming following years in Hollywood with a number of producer credits to his name.
Unapologetically PC exclusive, Star Citizen's mission statement is simple: to be the ultimate space epic, the game that Roberts has always wanted to make. It takes Roberts' trademark quality combat simulation gaming, adds detailed economy and trading elements, and throws it all into one massively multiplayer online persistent universe. A massive online universe populated with thousands of players, in which players can essentially do what they want: they can trade or start a business, they can be a combat pilot, they can become a diplomat, or they can engage in a bit of in-game sports (racing for example).
The sheer variety of gameplay being thrown into this game is matched by the vast efforts that are going into creating a believable, fully fleshed out universe. The official website now is chock-full of literature and back-story for the world they are creating, and even if reading into all that depth is not your kind of thing, that kind of love and detail makes a game world truly engaging, even for the most casual of players. It's this kind of effort that turns a good game into a great game.
Can an independent developer really deliver on such high ambition? So far the signs are good. The modules that have been rolled out so far show promise, and with the single player campaign set to begin this year, with the online persistent universe soon to follow, we are excited.
Release Date: TBA 2016
7. Fire Emblem Fates (3DS)
Amid all the talk of Nintendo consoles and the big money franchises of Mario and Zelda, it may come as a surprise to hear that arguably the greatest game on the Nintendo 3DS system comes from the little known Fire Emblem franchise.
Indeed the franchise, while always moderately successful in Japan, had fared so badly with western audiences that Nintendo were on the verge of telling the development team to give up and put the franchise on the scrap heap. With one chance remaining, Fire Emblem Awakening blew away every expectation that Nintendo had, earning critical and commercial success in every territory, with sales outstripping those of any earlier iteration by many orders of magnitude. Awakening not only saved the franchise, but propelled it to the status of one of Nintendo's biggest properties.
Now comes the difficult follow up, Fire Emblem Fates. For the first time the series carries a weight of expectation. Was Awakening just lightning in a bottle, or will those new fans stick around? The game is due for release on the 3DS this fall, so we shall soon find out.
Release Date: February 2016
6. Hitman (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
This may shock some people, but The Ephemeric has never owned a Hitman game. The premise is intriguing enough, but the technology has never been quite good enough to create a truly compelling, unpredictable setting for such a game. That seems to be about to change.
The idea behind the Hitman series is simple. You are a hitman, you get contracts to kill various unsavoury characters, and how you go about doing it is largely left up to you. You can use disguises, various weapons, and can manipulate others to assist you in various ways.
This newest iteration takes the concept to a whole new peak. These levels are so expansive, so full of activity and potential strategies that they really need to be seen to be believed.
Add to this a new, open-ended approach to game structure, with procedurally generated missions set among the same open settings, and this could have some serious longevity. We await with interest.
Release Date: March 11, 2016
5. The Legend of Zelda (Wii U)
Nintendo have got a lot in the pipeline this year, but by far the most hyped of their mega-franchises has got to be The Legend of Zelda, and a new one, the first original entry to the series on the Wii U, is set for release in 2016.
Little is known about the game so far, except that it will be the first original Zelda to be designed in HD, and that it will take heavy inspiration from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, specifically with regards to adopting a grand, open, freely explorable sandbox overworld.
The new Zelda is being designed with the idea to allow players real freedom in how they explore and complete quests. Just how that translates into the Zelda format is anyone's guess at the moment, but Nintendo's demo footage makes a point of showing us a vast, rolling mountainscape and telling us that any point we can see, we can visit. Zelda is truly one of the grandest of classic games franchises, and if they can combine the magic of older games with the technical marvels of open-world games like Skyrim, then the result could be something special.
No release date set in stone, except that it will be in 2016.
Release Date: TBA 2016
4. XCOM 2 (PC, Mac, Linux)
The Firaxis reboot of the XCOM franchise back in 2012 was something of a triumph; a modernising of the classic formula that kept things streamlined, but still deep enough to make for one of the most addictive strategy games of the past several years. Now the inevitable sequel, the imaginatively named XCOM 2 is here, and it looks pretty good.
Set 20 years after the last game, XCOM 2 takes the somewhat original approach of assuming you lost the last time out. So whatever ending you got by winning the game never happened, and aliens now rule the world.
It actually makes for a pretty interesting setting, with the XCOM project now playing the role of resistance movement in a world under enemy control. This completely turns the dynamic of XCOM on its head, with you now the scary monster creeping through the dark to sneak up on them for a change.
Other additions include procedurally generated maps, and more dynamic events throughout the campaign, which could make this even better than its predecessor.
Release Date: February 5, 2016 (Out Now)
3. Final Fantasy XV (Xbox One, PS4)
It's been a while since the Final Fantasy franchise gave us a reason to be excited. Final Fantasy X was pretty good, but that was fifteen years ago. Since then we've had two MMORPGs, and two fairly mediocre main-series games, one of which was so bad that Square-Enix went and made 3 sequels (in a series with practically no direct sequels) just to prove everyone wrong.
Final Fantasy XV looks like it might single handedly turn the franchise around. Originally starting life as Final Fantasy XIII Versus, this has been in development for many years now, quite extraordinary as far as game development goes. But from what we've seen so far, it looks like it was time well spent.
Visually the game looks as stunning as one would expect from Final Fantasy, but it's everything else, from the new, more realistic aesthetic to the vast open-ended world full of spectacle and life. The characters have a decidedly more relatable, human tone behind them, and the writing looks to be as compelling as it's been in years. This looks like it is going to get everything right that the last few entries in the series have been getting hopelessly wrong, and craft a setting and story that people will actually care about.
Release Date: TBA 2016
2. Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
We love the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect: Andromeda is the latest entry in the series, and as the name suggests, it's a complete break from the preceding trilogy.
This of course means that Shepard is gone, as are all the characters you know and love. More than that though, it seems the galaxy and locations you know and love are gone too, and Andromeda sees you travel to a whole new galaxy. Quite why that was necessary when game lore tells us that the Milky Way is 98% unexplored in Mass Effect is besides the point, surely not as a convenient way to avoid having to deal with the array of different endings one could have chosen for the original trilogy? But lets not quibble over poor writing.
A new galaxy means a focus on exploration, hence the whole "western" frontier style in the trailer above. Beyond this not a whole lot is known. It's speculated that you've arrived through a wormhole, an expedition intended to chart and colonise unknown space. It can be presumed that your ship is staffed by a menagerie of well-written characters with daddy issues. All sounds good, though we hope this isn't the last we've seen of the Milky Way we know and love.
Release Date: Winter 2016
1. Stellaris (PC, Mac, Linux)
But amid all these AAA releases with big name franchises and $100 million budgets, our most highly anticipated game of 2016 is the somewhat less prominent Stellaris.
Stellaris is another Paradox title (see Hearts of Iron IV above). Stellaris is their first foray into the science fiction genre, ostensibly a mix between the 4x genre of games like Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations, and the grand strategy genre of which Paradox are the undisputed masters.
It is undoubtedly exciting news that such strong designers are stepping into a genre that arguably has never bettered 1996's Master of Orion 2, but no one could have expected just how spot on they would get it.
Procedurally generated species, dynamic events, and extensive customization and modding point to the technical excellence on offer here, but it's the extra detail that shows the real love and attention that's being poured into this game. Star systems rendered right down to the moon and dwarf planet level, societies consisting of complex ideological factions that evolve over time, a spectrum of species from primitive to spacefaring, and even ancient fallen empires. Exploration, federations, individual science, political and military leaders whose skills and personalities will determine the path your empire follows.
In an genre of astoundingly ambitious intergalactic scale, Paradox really seem to have thought of every possible detail, in every aspect of both immersive world-building and compelling gameplay. This could well be the best Paradox game yet, and the absolutely definitive space game.
Release Date: TBA 2015
So there you have it folks: 2016 in videogames. Tune in next week for the essential theatrical productions set for release this year!