Thursday, May 05, 2016

OVP: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Film: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
Director: George Roy Hill
Oscar History: 7 nominations/4 wins (Picture, Director, Sound, Original Screenplay*, Score*, Original Song*, Cinematography*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

We finish off our three-day look at the final AFI 100 Years list with the final film that I saw that completed both the original and the tenth-anniversary editions of the list, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yes, despite being a film fanatic for some twenty-odd years, I had somehow never seen the classic western before a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I was excited.  There are very few bonafide American classics I haven't caught-in fact, I think this is the last one left that no one would dispute its importance and relevance.  As a result, I was truly hoping that I would love it as it was closing a long introductory chapter in terms of the world of cinema, and thankfully I did.  The film, warm and funny and still artistically-strong, is a joy to watch and something you'll want to see again and again.

(Spoilers Ahead...though this is based on real-life so spoiler alerts aren't really that necessary) The film is the story of Butch Cassidy (Newman), an intensely-charming bank robber who is joined by a gang that doesn't like his increasingly individualistic ways, but he is constantly supported by his right-hand man the Sundance Kid (Redford).  The two are in charge of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, a group that frequently finds themselves blowing up the safes on trains and taking the loot.  The two gain a bounty on their head about halfway through the film that feels disproportionate to the loot they've taken, but they realize the train owner has a personal vendetta against them and they know that they won't be able to escape the men running after them, so they flee along with Sundance's lover Etta (Ross) to Bolivia.  There they have a mildly successful career as bank robbers before justice catches up with them once again, and they die (presumably) from a flurry of Bolivian bullets.

The film's plot is relatively predictable, but it gains almost all of its power from the strength of the two leads and in particular the splendid cinematography.  Newman and Redford, who would re-team four years later for the Oscar-winning The Sting, have an almost orgasmic chemistry with each other in the picture.  Newman has rarely been so watchable as Butch, someone who flirts with everyone (including Sundance), and can get pretty much anything he wants from anybody (excluding Sundance).  Newman was such a game entertainer but he rarely showed off this comedic muscle-in many ways he reminds me of a classic Jon Hamm-so handsome you can't believe they're also funny.  The wryness with which he infuses Butch is mesmerizing, and really brings the script by William Goldman to life.  Redford is forced to play the straight man, but he finds the silliness in his character (that infamous "I can't swim" cliff scene being probably the best example), and is so beautiful it's easy to see why Katharine Ross can fall for him even if he's constantly a pain-in-the-butt.

The film won seven Academy Award nominations, and all of them were a worthwhile investment, but I want to speak specifically to the cinematography.  It's easy to make the desert look good, but there are techniques here that I don't recall seeing prior to 1969 even in the films of Frederick Young.  The twilight scenes, in particular, are gorgeous and Conrad Hall (who would go on to lens pictures like American Beauty and Road to Perdition late in his career), despite the fact that if IMDB is to be believed he didn't original come up with the idea, gives us a more essential picture by making these scenes darker and richer in color than you'd expect from what seems to be a truly great buddy comedy.  This is wonderfully contradicted with the famed "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence (which Robert Redford originally hated), which turned out to be one of the most celebrated in the film and wouldn't work if it weren't for the quick touch of Hall and Newman.  Overall, the film is a joy from start to finish-it's not a heavy, serious picture but it's one that it's impossible not to respect and admire.

Those are my thoughts on this classic movie, one I highly recommend if you've never gotten around to it-what are yours?  Do you have a favorite between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (I am perpetually loving Paul Newman)?  What is the biggest American classic film you've never seen?  And where does this rank in the (admittedly excellent) list of 1969's best movies?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

The State of the Senate

Lost amidst the sea of conversations about Trump vs. Clinton is the fact that we have other elections on the ballot in 2016, principally a battle to see who controls the United States Senate.  As many of you likely know, the Democrats needs four seats (five if they don't have the White House) in order to take back control of the body, but have 24 opportunities, as this cycle, thanks to the 2010 Midterms, is overwhelmingly stacked against the majority party.  Of particular note, however, is how Trump will impact the 2016 landscape.

It's likely, in fact quite likely, that we may see a slight uptick in the number of split-ticket ballots this November if Trump's approval ratings remain where they are and no conservative alternative emerges in the coming months.  Split-ticket voting, especially at a federal level, has started to become an endangered species as people (whether they want to admit it to themselves or not) are increasingly more partisan and less "voting for the person" as is a popular cliche.  Still, it's hard to imagine especially conservative women who can't stomach Donald Trump being willing to then cast a ballot for a Democratic senate or congressional candidate against a run-of-the-mill Republican.  That being said, if Trump is actually losing by the 8-10 points nationally that some polls suggest, it seems difficult to imagine that swing state or blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire won't feel that burn.  This list has taken a bit of a swing toward the Democrats since the last time I wrote it as a result of Trump's solidified position in the Republican race.  Granted, that could change-Trump has proven teflon throughout the primary, and perhaps the media's love/hate affair with him will continue, he could still (theoretically) lose the convention fight for the nomination, or Clinton could suffer badly through the summer campaign.  However, at this point it would be foolishness to not admit that the Democrats have a serious opportunity to not only take back the Senate, but perhaps even pad their majority as they head into a less-friendly 2018.  With that, here is the list of the ten seats most likely to switch sides (Number One being the most likely):

Honorable Mention: In the spirit of assuming that Republicans don't have as many resources this cycle and that they will be playing almost exclusively defense, I am removing Sen. Michael Bennet and the state of Colorado from this lineup for now. Republicans have struggled to get serious candidates on the ballot, and State Rep. Jon Keyser couldn't even make it through a petition without having to get a court order mandating he be placed on the ballot. This could change if Trump becomes more competitive, but the combination of Bennet being an incumbent who has already won in a tough cycle, the likely increase in Latino voters in November, and the weak bench from Republicans makes me think that Colorado would only be on this list out of habit, and that Bennet is relatively likely to win a third term in office.

Also, I still think it's far-fetched, but the numbers for Sen. Chuck Grassley's reelection in Iowa continue to look soggier, and the DSCC is stepping out for Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who has had boffo fundraising (getting more in four weeks than her primary opponent pulled off in six months), and is likely to get some credit from Emily's List, who is in desperate need of a win after going 1/5 last week.  Grassley is an Iowa institution, but the Democrats have an easy (and popular) line against him with the Merrick Garland confirmations, and if it's Clinton vs. Trump it's not hard to see her clobbering in Iowa-could that trickle down to help Judge?  It couldn't hurt...

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
10. Missouri

Missouri is the sort of race where the DSCC's insistence on getting as many quality candidates as they could muster could well pay off if Hillary Clinton does in fact beat Donald Trump, and flip valuable light red territory like the Show-Me State.  The problems for Secretary of State Jason Kander as he takes on first-term Sen. Roy Blunt (I'm as surprised as you are that he's only in his first term considering how quickly he's risen in the leadership ranks-take note, Chris van Hollen), are how many split-ticket votes he'll be able to pick off.  Missouri voters have in past presidential elections been more open to voting one party and then another (Mitt Romney won the state in 2012, but Claire McCaskill and Jay Nixon both won down-ballot by solid margins), but McCaskill and Nixon were incumbents in those races, something that carries an added bit of weight.  I think, personally, that while Kander is outperforming he's probably going to need Hillary Clinton to win the state in order to actually beat Blunt.  As that looks more and more possible, though, he is someone you shouldn't count out of the contest. (Previous Ranking: 10)

State Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC)
9. North Carolina

The Tarheel State is another contest that the Democrats likely need Hillary Clinton to win in, but as this was the state Mitt Romney won by the closest margin in 2012 (and Barack Obama took the state in 2008), it feels like an easier task for the DSCC than Missouri.  Sen. Richard Burr is a two-term senator who has made very little impression (he's like the Republican version of Bill Nelson), but while he's hardly controversial, he's going to have to share the ballot with two deeply polarizing figures: Donald Trump and Gov. Pat McCrory, who is in a tough battle for reelection in his own right.  Getting people to split your ticket just between the president and the Senate is one thing, but going against your presidential candidate and your governor is quite another.  Burr gains by having a relatively inexperienced opponent in State Rep. Deborah Ross, but Ross has proven to be a quick study, and will surely have a number of supporters like Emily's List in her corner.  Burr starts with an advantage, but should be worried-eight years ago a much more famous politician named Elizabeth Dole was in his exact same position, underestimating a little-known state legislator named Kay Hagan who ended up crushing her on Election Day. (Previous Ranking: 10)

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
8. Ohio

It's early in the season, so I'm going to mix it up a little bit with a gut feeling I've had for months.  The movement of Ohio down this list has less to do with the competitive nature of the race (yet another poll this past week showed Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. Ted Strickland tied), and more to do with my intuition starting to kick in in the Number 6 seed on this list.  Make no mistake, though, this is a race to watch. While Sen. Rob Portman is a more prodigious fundraiser (and quite frankly, a more skilled politician), sometimes being the better campaigner or strategist isn't enough (see also Kay Hagan in 2014), and if the national environment is so toxic that Clinton is winning Ohio by, say, 6-8 points, it won't matter how good of a campaign that Portman has run-he's going to lose to Strickland.  This is a race where the national race will have a huge impact, and expect Hillary Clinton, who has long counted Strickland as an ally, to pull out as many stops as she can to get the former governor into the Senate.  How she ends up fairing will go a long way here, in what is truly emerging as an unexpected tossup. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV)
7. Nevada

A lot of people have this race higher on their list, but quite frankly it's hard to say that this seat will switch if you're predicting that nationally the Democrats are going to be doing quite well, as I am currently projecting.  A lot could change between now and November, of course, but Harry Reid's seat looks more and more likely to cement his legacy by being handed off to his protegee Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who would become the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.  The Republicans have easily their best challenger recruit of the cycle in Rep. Joe Heck, who has long been rumored for the seat (many figured he would run against Reid himself until the Democratic leader surprisingly stepped down), and if the presidential race starts to calm down Heck will have a shot, but it's frequently forgotten that President Obama won the Silver State by robust margins (12-points in 2008 and 7-points in 2012 despite the state's high Mormon population).  It's easy to see Clinton equalling at least his 2012 numbers, and while a Republican can win under those conditions (Dean Heller did), Cortez Masto is a better candidate than the Democrats had in 2012 and the national wind will be more at their backs.  All-in-all, this is a race that could be competitive, and Cortez Masto is untested on a national scale, but I'd rather be the D's than the R's. (Previous Ranking: 6)

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (R-AZ)
6. Arizona

In what is easily my ballsiest move on this list, I'm moving up Sen. John McCain's reelection for a variety of reasons.  For starters, there's perhaps no greater state in the country with more potential for Donald Trump to muck up the chances of the Republicans for the Senate than the Grand Canyon State.  McCain is on-record (repeatedly) stating he will support the Republican nominee for president, but Trump has actually chastised McCain's war record (one of many moments in the campaign where it seemed like the New York businessman had sunk his battleship only to rise unscathed), polls in the state show Clinton walloping Trump in the state despite it going for Republicans the past four presidential elections, and Trump's brand of foreign policy in particular is anathema to McCain (who probably, secretly, prefers his longtime friend Clinton even though he can't possibly say that publicly).  That sets up a situation where McCain could still be vulnerable in a primary, and if he goes back on his Trump support could cost him dearly amongst conservatives who already regard him with suspicion.  All-in-all, McCain is in an awful position and the Democrats have a surprisingly strong candidate in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is polling evenly with the senator despite lower name recognition and is doing strongly with rural voters (and seems certain to win most of Hillary Clinton's voters).  As a result, I think this has become a much closer tossup than most analysts have assumed, and could be the big surprise in November.  Quite frankly, I think if the election were held today Kirkpatrick would nearly win, and a lot of the state doesn't even know her name yet. (Previous Ranking: 8)

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)
5. Pennsylvania

Polls will indicate that Katie McGinty is in a position that is much further back than if the Democrats had selected Rep. Joe Sestak (who has polled better than first-term Sen. Pat Toomey), but McGinty has shown, especially with national help, that she can seal the deal from behind and close the gap, and Toomey is going to (like most of the people on this list) have to deal with Donald Trump on his back.  Pennsylvania hasn't gone for a Republican presidential candidate in over twenty years, and while Republicans frequently talk about their long-term prospects, they're going to need an actually popular Republican to make such a thing happen.  The state seems assured a spot for Hillary Clinton, and with that Toomey (who is pretty conservative and is already being tied, hard, to Trump) will only have a hair's breadth of room to try and court Clinton/Toomey supporters.  Clinton clearly wants a Democratic Senate (if only to get a Supreme Court nominee out-the-gate), and McGinty will have strong support not only from her but from organizations like Emily's List-it's hard to see Toomey winning if Clinton is taking this state by more than 4-points, and every indication at this point is that she will. (Previous Ranking: 4)

Rep. David Jolly (R-FL)
4. Florida

I'm moving Florida down one spot on the list for the simple fact that I'm still not certain what's going on in the primaries.  The Republicans have at least a tenuous leader in Rep. David Jolly, who has a rather odd campaign finance reform platform that would be a little more tactful if he wasn't wealthy enough to finance his own campaign (expect Democrats to have some strong attack ads there).  While other Republicans are definitely running, Jolly has moved into the lead.  The Democrats, on the other hand, still have bombastic Rep. Alan Grayson as their preferred candidate if polling is to be believed, despite his poor chances against Jolly in the general election.  The DSCC, emboldened by a major primary victory in Pennsylvania, will surely go all-out for the more moderate Rep. Patrick Murphy, but unlike Pennsylvania this primary is less about style and more about political substance (Grayson is, indeed, more liberal than Murphy), and considering the strength of Bernie Sanders supporters, he could ride that wave in a primary where more left-leaning voters will be at the polls.  If the DSCC can get Patrick Murphy into the general and Hillary Clinton maintains her grasp on the state (two big question marks, though neither is a high mountain to climb), it's hard to see the Democrats not taking the Sunshine State seat currently held by Marco Rubio (adding insult to injury to the once-promising Republican), but they have to make it past those two questions first. (Previous Ranking: 3)

Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH)
3. New Hampshire

With Florida and Pennsylvania shifting slightly, I'm moving New Hampshire up as the Granite State has been the most susceptible in recent years to the whims of the national mood.  In 2006/08 they threw all of the Republicans out of office, and then in 2010 they did the same for the Democrats.  As Hillary Clinton seems poised to do well in the state (always ignore presidential primary results in general elections as it's a completely different ball-game, especially in early-voting states), that should bode well for Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the state.  Granted, both Ayotte and Hassan are relatively popular in the state and thus that makes this a strange race, and yes, Ayotte has a minor but real lead over Hassan at this point, but it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton winning by much without her carrying Hassan along for the ride-New Hampshire has become really adept at straight-ticket voting in recent years, especially around the presidential level, and Ayotte has become a major target of the Merrick Garland movement.  If the senator can maintain her poll numbers once the presidential election comes more into focus, I'll move this down on the list but right now it's hard for me to see Ayotte winning on the same ballot that Hillary Clinton is. (Previous Ranking: 5)

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
2. Wisconsin

Here's where we jump from tossup to likely takeover.  Polling has shown former Sen. Russ Feingold everywhere from a narrow victory to a double-digit lead, but the consistent marker of all of the polls is that Sen. Ron Johnson is down.  While it's only April and the race could shift, Johnson's approval ratings aren't great, Feingold has universal name recognition in the state and has been adept at fundraising in a post-Citizens United world (which was a question mark)-this is clearly now on the Democrats' turf, especially with Wisconsin a consistent Democratic state on the presidential level.  There have been races where the underdog came from behind in the face of such consistent polling (Lisa Murkowski in 2004, Heidi Heitkamp in 2012), but in those cases they were added by a national wind, which is a BIG stretch for Johnson.  It's not often it would be an upset if the incumbent won, but here it seems to be the case. (Previous Ranking: 2)

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
1. Illinois

The only true-blue state (no swing or purple about it) that has a Republican incumbent up in 2016, Sen. Mark Kirk can do pretty much everything he tries in Illinois and it will likely be no use.  I suspect that Kirk's personal story (recovering from a stroke to return to the Senate) may sway some independents, but there are enough consistent Democrats in the state that it won't matter, and it's possible that Kirk's leftward swing in recent months may hurt him more than help him as staunch conservatives in the southern portion of the state are less enthused to GOTV for the senator.  Hillary Clinton has home-state advantage, and the Democrats have a solid (if not spectacular) candidate in Tammy Duckworth, and Kirk has been known to indulge in a bit of foot-in-mouth disorder.  This nearly went to the Democrats in 2010, and you can bet your last dollar that Barack Obama, very concerned about legacy, will want his former seat to be in Democratic hands before he leaves the White House.  It would take a miracle (or, more accurately, a major scandal) for the Republicans to win this one, and politics doesn't usually work that way. (Previous Ranking: 1)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Thoughts on the Tony Nominations

Yesterday's election news was hardly good for me, but I couldn't let that deter me from getting to the Tony nominations (I would have had this article out last night, but I'm on a strict "watch a movie a day and watch The Real O'Neals live in order to help keep it on the air" plan this week-you should most definitely join me on the latter, as it's a marvelous show and I'm now on a tangent but WATCH IT).  I did very well with my predictions, so I only have three things that I really want to call out, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to discuss the theater just a wee bit:

1. Hamilton Breaks the Record...Can It Do It Twice?

Yesterday Hamilton officially made history again (the puns just write themselves this afternoon, don't they?) when it took sixteen nominations, one more than either Billy Elliot or The Producers, taking a nomination in literally every category that it was eligible for and likely setting up a mind-numbing sweep at this year's Tony Awards.  The question now is around whether or not it can break the other major Tony record: that of 12 Tony wins, which is currently held by The Producers.  It's nominated in thirteen categories, so it would have to win all of them (The Producers won in every category it was nominated for, but didn't have a female lead actress so Hamilton has the chance to break that tie up).  It seems relatively likely it could tie, but both Best Actress in a Musical (where Cynthia Erivo has to be considered a slight favorite for The Color Purple) and Choreography (where Savion Glover's magic work in Shuffle Along is going to be a fierce competitor) are both tossups at this point.  If it can take both, it seems near-certain that it would be able to be the first Broadway show ever to sweep all categories.

2. Audra McDonald and Jennifer Hudson Get Snubbed

In a seismic moment that threw most of Twitter off-guard, Audra McDonald (for the first time in her career for a musical) wasn't nominated for a Tony Award-in fact, even counting in plays the only time she's ever missed was for Henry IV.  While the Meryl Streep of Broadway took the snub with class, it's still a shock not to see McDonald's name amongst the five women nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, and kind of leaves a vacuum (that could, as I mentioned above, benefit both Erivo and Soo).  McDonald has missed a number of performances and isn't going to be with Shuffle Along for very long so the snub is understandable, but this is almost certainly the biggest shock of Tony nominations morning.

Coupling alongside that is Jennifer Hudson, who took on the Margaret Avery role in the recent revival of The Color Purple.  Hudson's name is plastered all over the poster and marquee, and it was expected by many that while her reviews weren't superb that she would end up gaining the nomination on celebrity alone.  Hudson was also making waves on Twitter yesterday with a surprise amount of candor about her lack of a nomination.  Though she quickly deleted the tweet (likely because it erupted a firestorm), celebrities should know better than to assume screenshots don't live forever, and she basically said she was only hired because of her fame, not because of her talent.  It feels like there's a lot of story there, but this does end Hudson's impressive EGOT-style debut series, where she won an Oscar for her film debut and Grammy for her first album.  She could still EGOT, of course, but she's going to need to give the boards another run in order to do it (perhaps she'll revive Effie White?).

3. Best Actress in a Play is Crazy

Four Oscar nominees litter the lineup for Best Actress in a Play, one of the most talented lineups for an award I've ever seen.  Jessica Lange, Sophie Okonedo, Michelle Williams, and Lupita Nyong'o all make up the list of women competing for the prize, and you would be forgiven for assuming that this was a lineup at the Golden Globes rather than the Tony Awards, though both Okonedo and Lange have had long careers on the stage.  Joining them is TV and theater legend Laurie Metcalf, who is one of my favorite performers (when is she going to get her own Frozen River/The Visiter?), and I suspect that while this is probably going to Nyong'o that there's room for Lange or even Williams to sneak in and take the trophy considering their name recognition and that they are both still on Broadway as well (and neither have won this letter in their EGOT).  Either way, I wish that all actressing lineups were this sensational, as I genuinely love all of these women.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  What stood out to you about yesterday's Tony nominations?

5 Thoughts on Last Night's Primaries

I actually had two different articles planned for today, but with the shock of yesterday's primaries in Indiana still sort of reverberating through me, I figured it was appropriate to postpone them until tomorrow (so we'll be finishing up our AFI blitz tomorrow afternoon), and focus on what happened yesterday, as it feels like a deeply historic moment for the nation and I couldn't let that slide by.  As we usually do the morning after primaries, here are five of my thoughts on last nights elections.

1. Donald Trump is Now Reality

I actually wrote a pretty extensive piece on this yesterday (check it out if you haven't!), but with Ted Cruz withdrawing from the Republican primary this has become official: Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.  Yes, John Kasich has not dropped out of the race, but at this point Kasich mirrors what Ron Paul usually ended up being in Republican primaries (something I never thought I'd say)-an afterthought that is there just for late-state primaries to be able to cast a protest vote.  This started to dawn on a number of prominent Republicans last night, and prominent officials ranging from Lindsey Graham to Ben Sasse all let out their voices of disgust that Trump would be their party's nominee.  In the case of Sasse, he point-blank said he would not support Trump if he were the nominee.  The question for the upcoming weeks is-does this stick?  It's easy to say in the heat of the moment you won't back your party's nominee, but when elections actually start, what do you do?  The bigger question is for senators who are going to have to run on the same ticket as Trump, especially those in blue states.  People like Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and Pat Toomey-will they embrace the Republican frontrunner and potential spell their own doom if he collapses?  We've seen what's happened to John McCain so far in that circumstance, and it isn't pretty.

2. Ted Cruz's Future

With Cruz now out of the race, one wonders what his future entails.  While it is a time-honored tradition for senators to come back to the chamber with their tales between their legs, but unlike John Kerry or John McCain in the past no senator has come back to an institution that he ravaged on the campaign trail quite like Cruz, as he frequently tried to make things as difficult as humanly possible for his fellow senators.  It's hard to imagine Cruz, after raging against Mitch McConnell and being called "Lucifer" by John Boehner, is going to get a free pass from his colleagues.  While it won't matter in Texas more-than-likely, if Cruz wants to at least appear somewhat effective for the next few years, he's going to have to find a way to make amends with his fellow senators.  It's also worth questioning for a man who has spent almost all of his public life wanting to be president, where does he go when he loses, especially in such a large fashion, to a man like Donald Trump (this is a question for the likes of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as well, for the record)?  Do the Republicans basically cast aside (permanently) the men who lost in 2016 and make that a litmus test in future elections?  If so, does Cruz either try to be Trump's VP or retire, hoping to get on the federal judiciary?  It seems unlikely he wastes decades in a body that despises him.  None of these are the options he wants, but he's going to have to make some very quick decisions in order to maintain something that, by losing so publicly, he risks destroying even though it's the most powerful currency a politician can hold: relevancy.

3. Hillary Clinton Screwed Up...But Bernie Sanders is Going to Pay For It

Hillary Clinton's surprise loss in the Hoosier State is arguably the biggest defeat of her primary calendar since Michigan, and she really only has herself to blame here.  After a series of major wins in New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Clinton kind of just jumped ahead, knowing mathematically that Bernie Sanders can't win the nomination and started a general election tour through Appalachia to road-test some pitches to voters that are more hesitant to her.  This was a brilliant strategy assuming the Republican race stayed in pandemonium, but that is no longer the case and suddenly Clinton is now in a very precarious position-Trump can now pivot to the general election and she's going to have to sustain attacks from both her left and right.  Lest we forget, this is how Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012 started-he couldn't handle being beaten by both the Tea Party and Obama, and his approval ratings suffered.  Had Clinton gone full-court press in Indiana (that, Ted Cruz, is how you make a basketball metaphor in Hoosier territory), she might have beaten Sanders, pushing him to the point where he had to genuinely consider getting out of the race for the good of the party.  It's hard to convince Sanders that he needs to drop out when he just won a state and upcoming primaries (Like Oregon), seem to favor the Vermont senator.

However, it is critically important that Clinton get Sanders out of the race, and soon.  Trump now has the tactical advantage in that he can spend all of his money going after Clinton, while she is answerable to two sides, and every day Clinton isn't attacking Trump is a day that she could start seeing her poll numbers slip; she needs to quickly assemble her left flank and then start pushing hard for moderates who are going to be susceptible to a change after getting the Trump gut-punch.  Expect a major push from lawmakers for Sanders to get out of the race.  I wouldn't be stunned if we see an avalanche of superdelegates coming to Clinton's side in the next week or so as reality sets in and they realize that Trump could be the president.  It's highly possible that Barack Obama (or one of his surrogates, like Joe Biden) will endorse Clinton in the next week or so, and the Clinton camp will almost surely start negotiating with Sanders on what his terms are to get out of the race (I suspect campaign finance and banking reform on the platform will be chief amongst the concessions).  However, every day Bernie Sanders is in the race now hurts Hillary Clinton-that's going to be a tough fact for a man who reviles Donald Trump's positions to endure.  No one wants to be Ralph Nader. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)
4. Is a Third-Party Challenge Possible?

The question on a lot of Republicans' minds is going to be: is a third-party challenge possible?  People like Sen. Ben Sasse and Gov. Rick Perry have both had their names thrown around as a possible conservative challenger for vulnerable Republicans like Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk to rally behind, and likely help save the party's chances in Congress, which could depress quite a lot if moderate Republicans simply don't show up at the polls or go for Clinton.  However, the deadlines for a believable run for the White House are coming up, and they're hard to get past: the deadline to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate in Texas is next Monday, and it's not feasible to imagine a candidate emerging in that short of time, getting 80,000 valid signatures, and getting on the ballot.  And any run for the White House where the conservative challenger isn't on the ballot in Texas (which is a state the Republicans can't mathematically win without) would be just symbolic.  Other states like North Carolina and Arizona (both states that are critical to a Republican win for the White House), have very steep thresholds in order to gain ballot access, likely making mounting a third party bid relatively difficult, bordering on the impossible.  The party could theoretically back a Libertarian or Constitution Party candidate, but that comes with its own bag of problems-as a result, this seems like a more compelling solution on paper than anything else, though don't expect the conversation to go away.

Rep. Todd Young (R-NE)
5. Donald Trump Has Few Coattails

In what has to be a relief for Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, Donald Trump's candidacy at the top of the ticket hasn't really had much of an effect on down-ballot races so far.  Last night proved that, with Rep. Todd Young crushing Club for Growth/Tea Party-backed Rep. Marlin Stutzman in the primary to succeed Sen. Dan Coats.  In 2010/2012, the Tea Party movement randomly took down many more electable Republicans in states like Indiana (who can forget Indiana's own Richard Mourdock), but Trump's brand of politics doesn't appear to be catching on with similarly bombastic candidates down-ballot.  While there's still room for that now that he's the official nominee (I'm looking at you Nevada, where Joe Heck and Sharron Angle could cause a major screw-up for the NRSC), I am wondering if the Republicans are in a cult of personality situation that isn't catching on anywhere else-Donald Trump's narcissism and brand of tossing everyone aside but himself is, appropriately, not benefiting anyone but himself.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

OVP: Blade Runner (1982)

Film: Blade Runner (1982)
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Darryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos
Director: Ridley Scott
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Art Direction and Visual Effects)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Approaching a classic film is always a challenge.  Approaching a classic film that also doubles as a cult film, a picture so frequently referenced that it approaches you knowing nearly the entire film by the time you actually see it is something else entirely.  I actually dreaded in some ways finally encountering Blade Runner, a science fiction epic (arguably my favorite genre outside of detective noir, which this film also borrows from heavily), as I knew that I was either going to love it or find it lacking in so many ways, hoping that the film would give me its best but preparing for the worst.  My eventual opinion somehow landed in-between, a combination of both duly impressed but also wanting more after so much promise.

(Spoilers Ahead) For many of you the spoiler alert isn't necessary, but for the rest of you let me at least indulge for a second.  The film follows Deckard (Ford) in 2019 (the future is always disappointing when you compare it to what actually ends up happening isn't it...though if Trump gets elected maybe the apocalypse is in fact upon us).  Deckard is charged with "retiring" (killing) four different replicants (essentially advanced artificial intelligence creations) who have escaped and are now on Earth illegally, essentially hoping to have their lives extended.  Along the way, he falls in love with a replicant named Rachael (Young), who helps him retire one of the replicants that is trying to kill him.  Slowly-but-steadily the four replicants are killed by Deckard, who knows they only have a night or so to live without having some sort of technology that will extend their lives.  He ends with Roy Batty (Hauer), the leader of the robots, in a strange act actually save him, just to watch him die as his life expires.

The film combines a lot of elements of noir, and it's close enough to something that Stanley Kubrick would dream up that the film never lacks in terms of direction or suspense.  While it's clear that Hauer's Roy Batty will be the final remaining character, each of the different robots has their own personas and especially with Pris (Hannah) she's such a strong fighter that you half expect her to lay out Harrison Ford or at least run away from the contest.  The movie is spectacularly good at world-building-there's little confusion over the rules of this filmic world and everything feels authentic.  It's kind of staggering the film never had a sequel, and quite frankly a movie like this couldn't be made today without one on the docket (actually, a movie this original couldn't be made today, period, unless Christopher Nolan had stumbled across the Philip K. Dick novel and developed a penchant for it), but it gains so much by never answering some of the critical questions at the end of the picture.  The film exists unto itself, and with such distinctive characters and sets, it's easy to see why this became a cult movie classic.

My problem with the film is that the story, while complicated, never really gives us enough character to go with it.  Yes, the actors and sets are distinctive, but we never really get to know the robots enough to know what their motives are, and why they exist the way they do.  This wouldn't be a problem for the audience, except that Deckard is clearly assumed to be a robot himself, one who doesn't know it yet but is likely going to have a shut-down period in the near future.  The film is littered with hints of this, particularly the newest version of Ridley Scott's picture (this is a film with MANY different iterations).  By not exploring this a little bit more fully, we don't get to see the ways that Ford's Deckard ticks in comparison to those androids he's hunting down.  I'm fine with ambiguity in the ending (and man did Inception copy from that finale), but if you're going to leave a question that open-ended, you need to give us more from the characters (save perhaps Roy Batty) than just a truly awesome Halloween costume idea.

Those are my thoughts on this particular picture, which received two well-earned Oscar nominations (seriously-these were the exact categories this film deserved to be nominated in), but as this is a widely-celebrated cult classic I'd love to get inside of your head.  I plan on eventually seeing the film again, and while I engaged mostly at a surface-level, what a surface level to engage in-overall it's definitely a film that I'd recommend, even if I don't think I'll ever love it the way that other people did.

Donald Trump is the Republican Nominee...and We Need To Realize the Consequences

Polling for today's Indiana primaries are kind of all over the board for the GOP.  Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have, in recent days, taken the lead away from one another and quite frankly, not since Wisconsin have I been this curious over who will end up taking the statewide vote, and with that a large amount of delegates.  Considering who the polls are coming from, I'd suspect that Trump (with massive momentum at his back) is the more obvious contender to take the Hoosier State, and with that, likely the Republican nomination.

Even if he doesn't win, at this point it's hard to imagine anyone other than the New York business magnate winning the Republican nomination.  John Kasich has become such a footnote at this point he's basically just a protest vote for Republicans who can't fathom not voting but can't bring themselves to pick between chopping off their arm or their leg.  Ted Cruz has had a dip in his support at literally the worst possible time-not since Marco Rubio's faltering in a debate against Chris Christie have we seen a candidate have such poor timing.  The decision to pick Carly Fiorina rather than someone who might have shaken up the race a bit more forcefully (John Kasich or Marco Rubio come to mind) reeked of him trying to shape the narrative, and he's received little to no bounce from the announcement.  It's going to be next to impossible for the Republicans, regardless of how many delegates are trying to be stacked in Cruz's favor, to deny Donald Trump, who clearly has the support of the majority of their parties' voters, the nomination.  He's won the most popular votes, will head into the convention with the most delegates (likely exceeding or at least very close to approaching 1237), the most popular votes, and the most won contests.  Quite simply, the voters want him, and it would feel undemocratic and false to go with Cruz, Kasich, Paul Ryan, or any other Republican that the powers-that-be are hoping to see on the Cleveland dais.

As a result, this is going to be a come-to-Jesus moment for the GOP.  Many members of the party, including members of Congress like Ben Sasse, Scott Rigell, and Mark Sanford, have pledged that they will not endorse Trump even if he is the party's nominee.  People like Reps. Bob Dold and Carlos Curbelo, who have said the same thing, are likely signing away their careers in Washington as they live in districts that went for President Obama but it's difficult to imagine Trump telling his supporters to back candidates who don't back him in return; considering that coalition-building in that scenario is next to impossible, both are near certain to lose with Trump at the top of the ticket.  George Will has gotten to the point where he has implied that Hillary Clinton is a better option than Donald Trump (and that's saying something coming from the poster boy for conservatives).

The question here is-what do Republicans do?  I tweeted this the other day, but really the only person who is actually going to help the #NeverTrump movement is Hillary Clinton.  The reality is that the former New York senator is the only person who can actually stop Trump from taking the White House-elections have consequences, and even if you don't like who wins them you're stuck with them, and Trump is near certain to take the GOP nomination.  A third party option isn't really there-getting Ben Sasse or Mike Bloomberg suddenly into the race under an independent banner isn't going to be feasible, and has too much potential to backfire.

And the reality is that, while it's anathema for die-hard Republicans to support Hillary Clinton (it's not even a Democrat they haven't learned to hate yet like a Martin O'Malley or Mark Warner-it's the woman they've loathed for decades), Donald Trump is a dangerous man.  If he does half of the things he's promised on the campaign trail while in the White House, the country is headed for an international incident, potentially deeply discriminatory practices against women and minorities, and quite frankly I don't want a man that is as hot-tempered, quick to change positions with no grasp on international policy, and quick to incite incendiary speech within twenty miles of the nuclear codes.  Sarah Palin being vice president, despite having zilch grasp on foreign policy, international diplomacy, and most key issues of the day, was scary enough; at least John McCain was still in charge in that regard.  Here we would have a man who has shown no humility, grace, or concept of foreign policy outside of what is written on his teleprompter.  Those who praise his foreign policy speech are clearly grasping for straws-in an interview he couldn't do that, and it still reeked of a relatively simplistic point-of-view.

I'm not necessarily asking conservatives and establishment Republicans to get out and vote for Hillary Clinton.  That seems like an enormous ask, but at least espouse not voting for Trump or casting a protest vote for a third-party candidate or leaving that line on the ballot blank.  The reality is that while Trump is definitely an unknown factor (I figured we'd see hundreds of articles coming out saying "well, Trump can actually win"), the odds are stacked against him in a way that they never were in the GOP primary.  The media is going to have a harder time, with the stakes considerably higher, overlooking his gaps in policy, and even if they don't he has encountered a party that was going to be more receptive to his calls for change as they loath the current administration.  The reality is that, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton also has record low approval ratings, the country has voted for the Democratic candidate for president in five out of the past six popular votes, and George HW Bush, Bob Dole, George W Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all enjoyed universal support from their party, something that Trump doesn't have.  To speculate that Trump could bring out people who don't vote normally ignores the fact that there could well be a number of people who don't normally vote that will come out and vote against him.  Already we're seeing an enormous increase in the number of Latino voters who are registering to vote compared to past contests, which will affect not only the presidential race in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, but also the down-ballot Senate and House races in those states.

This is a major election, and perhaps finally that maxim of "most important of our lifetimes" is going to be true, despite it being trotted out literally every two years.  Do we (Democrats, Independents, and moderate-leaning Republicans) pick an admittedly flawed woman who has held multiple high-level positions, even if she wasn't our first (or in the case of those Republicans, "anything other than last") choice for the nomination, or do we stand by and watch a man who quotes Mussolini, who espouses hatred toward his fellow countrymen and relishes in chaos, take on the highest office in the land just because of the letter behind his name?  It's a question everyone should be asking, and while I don't envy Republicans who have to make such a painful decision, I know what I'd do in their shoes.

Monday, May 02, 2016

OVP: Spartacus (1960)

Film: Spartacus (1960)
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, John Dall
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Oscar History: 6 nominations/4 wins (Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov*, Costume*, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Film Editing, Score)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Over the past month, I finally finished a longtime goal of mine, one that has been sitting on my Bucket List for years just waiting to be completed: seeing all of the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Films.  Yes, I managed to see all of the movies (on a 19-year-old list-don't judge, I had other stuff going on, and how many have you finished it?), and as a result I got a teensy bit behind on the reviews for the films because I saw a few in rapid succession.  This week we'll get reviews for the final three movies I saw from the list, one of which is Spartacus, the gladiator epic starring Kirk Douglas that somehow won a mountain of Oscars without a Best Picture citation.  Hopefully this will inspire you to complete a film or two off of the list yourself, as even the worst of the bunch are still iconic parts of American cinema.

(Spoilers Ahead) Spartacus came at arguably the height of the biblical or time-of-Christ epics, and like many of those films it is VERY long.  Clocking in at just over three hours, it's the sort of film you need a Saturday night and a bucket full of popcorn to complete, but thankfully that was the route I went as I really enjoyed the picture.  Telling the tale of Spartacus (Douglas), a slave who can no longer stand his station, he is sentenced to fight as a gladiator, but succeeds in killing his master and then escaping to form a slave army, causing a rebellion that makes its way all the way to Rome, where political maneuverings between Crassus (Olivier), Gracchus (Laughton), and an emerging Julius Caesar (Gavin) result in Spartacus' gaining great fame and eventually causing his doom, but not before hundreds of men die in a senseless act of violence that seals Spartacus' fate as a legend.  The film ends with Kirk Douglas hanging from a cross, seeing his son (who is now free) and having the comfort that he did not die in vain.

I am a self-professed fan of historical epics of this era (I loved Ben-Hur as you may recall), which may surprise some but I'm always a sucker for a gigantic story if it's done well, and this is true of Spartacus. The script, written in secret by Dalton Trumbo (it was essentially the film that ended the blacklist, as you'll recall from the recent biopic about the writer, and a lot of that had to do with Kirk Douglas demanding Trumbo get credit-Douglas was too big of a star for Hollywood to ignore, and the box office for this film was gargantuan so the blacklist suddenly had no purpose).  The movie's core is centered around a man largely devoid of fault, which made director Stanley Kubrick (isn't it weird to think that this is a Kubrick film since it's so alien to the rest of his pictures?), but in reality Spartacus is a man of deep pride who doesn't really know how to play his own game.  There are moments in the film where doing exactly what is right costs him dearly, and so he might be a man without blemish on his character, but tactically he's not always brilliant, so I didn't get the "saint" factor that sometimes plagues films of this nature.  He's essentially Ned Stark, for those of you who watch Game of Thrones, and they meet similar ends.

The film is of course noted for its iconic "I am Spartacus" scene and with good reason.  I'd seen this film in clip shows at least a hundred times before, but positioned in the final third of the movie, it is still a gut punch, and one that will leave you in tears.  Watching hundreds of men sacrifice themselves for a cause, particularly considering the way that this clearly was a metaphor for the Red Scare and what was happening to Dalton Trumbo himself during this era, is deeply moving.  History repeats itself, and Trumbo's script knows that that's the case, and finds ways to make sure the audience can see past the gladiator wear and into their own present.

The film is famed for the homosexual overtones between Crassus and Antoninus (Curtis), and the scenes between them are truly provocative (famously, as Olivier was dead, Anthony Hopkins did the dubbing for this scene which was re-introduced to the picture after being cut by censors in the 1960's when it was added back into the movie in the 1990's).  The scene is rather shocking as there's little subtlety or even hints that Crassus could be talking about something other than having sex with Antoninus, and while it's problematic that we have the "predatory gay" scene here (not to mention the absolute disgust from Antoninus over the entire situation), it's still pretty progressive in terms of simply acknowledging the clear homosexual overtones of a film where only Jean Simmons appears as a major female character.  Plus, any film with John Gavin is at least gay in my mind, so there's that.

The film won six Academy Award nominations, though oddly enough not one for Best Picture, with the Academy perhaps worn out of gladiator epics so soon after Ben-Hur won eleven trophies.  Still, it managed a stronghold on the tech categories, and rightfully so.  The cinematography is breathtaking, a wonderful Technicolor concoction, is one of the most beautiful of the era, and we see gigantic plains of actors, extras, and magnificent settings that feel fully-detailed.  Russell Metty was only nominated for an Oscar once in his career, but thankfully it was for the right picture here.  The Art Direction and Costume are full of great touches, and in the case of the Art Direction in particular the scenery feels (while clearly part of a movie set) relatively-detailed and manages to be both best AND most, which is something that we don't oftentimes see in this category.  The score by Alex North is instantly iconic, and rumbles throughout the picture but never in a way that feels like bombast (or at least when it does, it's tonally appropriate bombast as this is a sword-and-sandals film).  One of the few weak points in the nominations, though, would be the editing.  Occasionally the film's political scenes feel too talky and though I don't quibble with the movie being 184 minutes long, there are scenes that probably could have used some trimming to keep the focus a bit tighter.

My biggest complaint, and why this film doesn't hit five stars (and flirted dangerously with three), is that the acting isn't particularly good.  Kirk Douglas nails his lead role, but it's not a challenging one which is probably good as nuance was never Douglas' forte.  The rest of the cast, though, runs the line between hammy and hammier.  Casting Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov in your movie is basically begging for Royal Shakespeare Company style acting, but it also means that they are all trying to one-up each other in scenery-chewing.  I am kind of flabbergasted that it was Ustinov over the showier Laughton and Olivier who managed the supporting nomination (perhaps their egos made it impossible for them to compete for anything other than lead?), but Ustinov's morally corrupt, but still with a slight heart of gold, mid-level official is hardly worth noticing except that Ustinov is always fun to watch in a camp sort of way.  The role and most of the other characters feel like cartoons more than anything else, and while Trumbo's script and Douglas' gravitas keep the movie grounded, the side scenes with these characters, except for when the occasional catty aside comes out are nearing the level of bad acting.

Those are my thoughts on this gargantuan movie.  I suspect (considering its status in American cinema) that most of you have seen this-if you have, please share your comments below.  Are you as shocked as I that this is a Stanley Kubrick film?  Are you with me that the film is great, but the acting a massive disappointment?  And considering Ustinov's competition, who were you cheering for in the Supporting Actor race of 1960?  See you in the comments!