Thursday, July 31, 2014

Losing the EGOT

Occasionally I find myself sorting through particularly random trivia, and one of my favorite bits of trivia surrounds the younger of the acting Redgrave sisters.  While Vanessa was the great actor of her generation, Lynn had something else special about her.  Lynn managed to be the only person in the history of entertainment to receive nominations for an Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony award...and not win any.

This is of course both a huge compliment and an enormous disappointment.  Redgrave managed to get nominated for three Tonys, two Emmys, two Oscars, and a Grammy in her career, something almost every actor would kill for, but you have to assume that she wishes she could have taken the stage just once to accept one of those major awards (to her credit, she did pick up a pair of Golden Globe Awards).

I'm always struggling a bit here to get commenters, so I'm hoping some of you will see the chance for awards trivia and jump on it, as this list is likely not comprehensive despite my exhaustive Wikipedia efforts.  What I am trying to do is predict who would be the next person to pull off the feat of losing all four of the EGOT trophies will be.  As far as my research has discovered I have found five people who have been nominated for and lost three of these awards and are still kicking so they could go on to lose the fourth.  I am sure, though, that there must be more-if you know of one, share in the comments and I'll be happy to give you credit.  Until then, here are the five people who could follow in Ms. Redgrave's footsteps if they can make it to the top (almost).

Gabriel Byrne

Nomination He's Missing:
Emmys Lost: 2008 and 2009-Lead Actor in a Drama (In Treatment)
Grammys Lost: 1998-Spoken Word Album (The Nightingale and the Rose)
Tonys Lost: 2000-Lead Actor in a Play (A Moon for the Misbegotten)
He Shouldn't Feel Too Sad: He did win a Golden Globe for his work on In Treatment

Can He Seal the Deal?: The trick to "pulling a Lynn Redgrave" (patent-pending) is to be able to make positions second through fifth, but not manage to grab first.  I think that Byrne could well nab an Oscar nomination, considering he is a multi-hyphenate entertainer (he not only acts, but also writes, directs, and produces), and doesn't seem too likely to win any of the other awards anytime soon.  He rarely does Broadway and his television show isn't on anymore-this seems like one of the more likely of the five (I did the list alphabetically, so there was no leading toward the victor here).

Ed Harris

Nomination He's Missing:
Emmys Lost: 2005-Lead Actor in a Miniseries (Empire Falls), 2012-Supporting Actor in a Miniseries (Game Change)
Oscars Lost: 1995-Supporting Actor (Apollo 13), 1998-Supporting Actor (The Truman Show), 2000-Lead Actor (Pollock), 2002-Supporting Actor (The Hours)
Tonys Lost: 1986-Actor in a Play (Precious Sons)
He Shouldn't Feel Too Sad: He has two Golden Globe awards, for The Truman Show and Game Change

Can He Seal the Deal?: For a long time there, it seemed like Ed Harris would surely win an Oscar.  He received a staggering four nominations in the span of seven years, and one could make a pretty convincing argument that he was in second in two, if not three of those years (Amy Adams-take note).  Harris has since fallen on hard times with the Academy and has had no more luck with Emmy.  This of course could happen, as the Spoken Word Album category can slip someone in at almost any time, and Harris is famous enough that he could make it for some reading of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  However, he's never been a particularly "awards-seeking" performer (otherwise he would have beaten James Coburn in 1998), and I don't see this happening.  Picking up an Emmy at some point is probably more likely.

Kate Nelligan

Nomination She's Missing:
Emmys Lost: 1989-Actress in a Drama Series (Road to Avonlea)
Oscars Lost: 1991-Supporting Actress (The Prince of Tides)
Tonys Lost: 1983-Actress in a Play (Plenty), 1984-Actress in a Play (A Moon for the Misbegotten), 1988-Featured Actress in a Play (Serious Money), 1989-Actress in a Play (Spoils of War)
She Shouldn't Feel Too Sad: She did win a BAFTA for Frankie and Johnny

Can She Seal the Deal?: The longtime Canadian stage actress enjoyed most of her awards-success at the Tonys, where in the 1980's she was a frequent contender but always missed (it can't feel too bad losing to the likes of Jessica Tandy and Glenn Close, though).  Her one-and-done nomination in 1991 at the Oscars makes her the person who has been on this list the longest, and as a whole she rarely acts anymore (on the stage or otherwise), so unless she has a particular penchant to get involved with an album and score a truly random nomination, this seems like the least likely of the five to happen.  It is interesting, though, how such a comparatively obscure (certainly the least well-known of these five) actress could so quickly score 3/4 of an EGOT loss.

Kathleen Turner

Nomination She's Missing:
Grammys Lost: 2001-Spoken Word Album (The Complete Shakespeare Sonnets)
Oscars Lost: 1986-Lead Actress (Peggy Sue Got Married)
Tonys Lost: 1990-Actress in a Play (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), 2005-Actress in a Play (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
She Shouldn't Feel Too Sad: She has two Golden Globes for Romancing the Stone and Prizzi's Honor.

Can She Seal the Deal?: Of the five, I think this is probably the most shocking person on the list, considering that she almost certainly was close to getting nominated at the Emmys for playing Chandler's mother on Friends.  I would suspect, therefore, that she's also the most likely person to pull the Lynn Redgrave of these five.  She just needs a solid guest spot on a cable television series (probably not too hard considering their penchant for going for former headliners of a certain age for guest roles), and to not win the Tony Award (she probably would have won in 2005, but no one was going to take out Cherry Jones in Doubt).  I think that's manageable, and that she's probably going to make it thanks to the bizarre dozens-of-people-nominated Shakespeare Sonnets nomination she got in 2001.

Vanessa Williams

Nominations She's Missing:
Emmys Lost: 2007, 2008, and 2009-Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (Ugly Betty), 2009-Performer in an Animated Program (Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies)
Grammys Lost: 1989-New Artist and Female R and B Performance ("The Right Stuff"), 1990-Female R and B Performance ("Dreamin"), 1992-Female R and B Performance ("Runnin' Back to You"), 1993-Record of the Year ("Save the Best for Last"), Female Pop Vocal Performance ("Save the Best for Last"), Female R and B Vocal Performance ("The Comfort Zone"), and Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals ("Love Is"), 1995-Female Pop Vocal Performance ("Colors of the Wind") and Female R and B Performance ("The Way That You Love"), 1997-Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album (Star Bright)
Tonys Lost: 2002-Actress in a Musical (Into the Woods)
She Shouldn't Feel Too Sad: She was Miss America, but umm, yeah, maybe she should get a little pity here.

Can She Seal the Deal?: Yeah, that list of Grammy losses is massive.  Williams is one of the most nominated women in the Recording Academy to never win.  Despite her seventeen year absence, I think her best shot would be to pick up one of the below-the-line Grammy Awards rather than take an Oscar nomination.  Williams did sing an Oscar-winning song, of course (1995's "Color of the Wind"), but she's not very much of a songwriter, and the movies have oddly never taken to her like music, television, and the theater.  So my gut says no, she can't quite get there (prove me wrong, casting directors), but may well win one of the other three awards before all is said and done.

And those are the five!  Like I said, I researched pretty thoroughly, but if you trivia sleuths have a sixth person let me know!  And of course, if you don't, please discuss-which of these performers is most likely to score the fourth nomination and "pull a Lynn Redgrave?"  Share in the comments!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

John's Favorite Shows #6: Mad Men

We’ve gotten a bit off-track, but I’m resuming our rundown of my favorite shows of all time by highlighting my ten favorite episodes of each.  If you’ve missed any of them, check out the links at the bottom of this post for all of the past roundups.

I did not purposefully take such a long gap between my favorite shows lists, but you’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember our last installment.

I will admit that at the moment I am the slightest bit sour on Mad Men, perhaps the best show currently on television.  The seventh season split was, most definitely, a bad idea.  I started watching this show during its second season (as I have pointed out before, it’s a rare day that I start watching a show in its first season, mostly due to my Pushing Daisies PTSD), but it was at the very beginning of the second season and what I love about the show is that it plays so well when you aren’t binge-watching it.  It paces perfectly with each week building to one giant revelation after another in the season finales, making you feel like you need to go back and watch every second once more.

And the show did a marvelous job this past season in the seven episodes that it gave us, finishing with two killer episodes before the mid-season break, but I do hate that they will have to risk all of that momentum as we head toward the finale.  Breaking Bad, in my opinion, has started an awful trend here that makes what is already a final few episodes to be savored feel more like a drag.  I hope that shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are paying attention-keep that giant, glorious final season together rather than spreading it apart.

Still, this is hardly the time nor place to complain about one of my all-time favorite shows, and so instead of dwelling on Matthew Weiner’s decisions, I’ll instead jump right into my favorite episodes.  Without further adieu…

10. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” (#3.11)

No one in the Mad Men universe commands more divided opinions than Betty Draper.  I sometimes wonder if it’s the fact that she’s playing a mundane, ordinary housewife (at least she is at the beginning of the series) or if it’s due to the actress behind the vacant stares (January Jones, who I maintain does a brilliant job in the series even though she has done nothing since in other performances to argue that she’s more than one-note).  Either way, the showdown was electric, with Don finally finding a conversation with Betty that he just couldn’t get his way out of, and that excellent ending, with Francine randomly asking “who are you supposed to be?” to Don.  After three seasons, Don’s world finally started to truly collapse, and January Jones got her finest hour on the show.

9. “The Beautiful Girls” (#4.9)

Mad Men as a title has always been a bit of a misnomer.  Really, this show’s most compelling characters have always been its women.  All of those women get to highlight this episode with wonderful abandon.  You have Peggy trying desperately to make a connection on a romantic level, failing miserably (Peggy is the quintessential failed work/life balance girl).  You have Joan, finally giving in to Roger’s pleas to rekindle their affair after both the betrayal of her husband rejoining the army and a mugging.  And of course you have poor, poor Sally, pushed to spend time with her father’s mistress and then, even worse, her gorgon of a mother (Betty was ruthless after that divorce).  This is a wonderful showcase for all of them, and proof that Mad Men can totally dominate, even if it’s not the midseason high or the finale.

8. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” (#1.12)

On a night of a deeply divided election (all season long we’ve been hearing about how Sterling Cooper is desperate to elect Richard Nixon, but we all know that that’s eight years from happening), we get to learn a whole lot more about Robert Morse’s enigmatic Bert Cooper.  I could focus this episode on the antics in the office (oh how some of these men have changed dramatically as this series has worn on, particularly Ken) or everyone goofing around over Paul’s script.  But really, this episode is on this list because of the showdown between Don and Pete, a longtime coming in this episode, as Pete tells Bert all about Don’s real-life as Dick Whitman (doesn’t that story seem eons ago at this point?), and Bert replies with, “this country was built and run by men with worse stores than whatever you’ve imagined here.”  It’s a telling moment for the man behind the curtain, and a sigh of relief for Don.

7. “Meditations in an Emergency” (#2.13)

Set in the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have two major stories continuing in the series.  The Draper marriage, never on particularly solid ground, gets thrown a sharp curve when Betty finds out that she’s pregnant.  She decides to stick it out with Don after he apologizes once again, and this is the last such reconciliation for the two, unless you count that quickie on the field trip a few seasons later.  On the flip side is a rough separation for Pete and Peggy, who may have been the love of his life but he didn’t see it at the time.  He admits that she’s the one, and then she, in the most direct, matter-of-fact, and desperate way possible, tells him that she had his baby, and that she gave it away.  Pete, so desperate for a son, had one, and will never get to know him.  Part of the genius of this series is that the son never returned and Pete never had one to make up for this emptiness (he said, hoping he’s right for the final episodes of the series)-this was our only moment of closure with one of the most important aspects of the first season.  Life moves on, and Pete and Peggy would never again be together.  And we continue to be shocked by how much it never happened.

6. “Waterloo” (#7.7)

Sometimes you get an episode that gives you something you’ve been desperate for the entire run of a series.  Ross and Rachel finally getting together, for example, or perhaps some sort of retribution for John Locke.  You need it, and after a rough few seasons, it was about damn time that something good happened to the people at the firm, with McCann Erickson offering to buy shares of the company, making all of the partners (Joan, Roger, Don, and the like) all wealthy beyond their dreams.  You also got some whimsy and hope in the episode, like Peggy’s successful play with Burger Chef and Roger gleefully pushing Harry out of the meeting, keeping the scummy Mr. Crane out of the lucrative deal.  Best of all was a wonderful sendoff of Robert Morse, singing “The Best Things in Life are Free” as we bid adieu to his character with the moon landing.  A blissful calm before the end.

5. “The Wheel” (#1.13)

The first season of the show was more mysterious, more plot-and-less character based.  We had Don hiding his affairs and his secret identity.  You had Peggy hiding her pregnancy and desperately trying to find her place in a man’s world.  And you also had Betty, confused about her role in adulthood, having those creepy conversations with Glen and wondering what to do with her failed marriage.  All of these come to a head in this episode, with Betty trying to find solace in her therapy, Peggy giving birth, and Don watching as his most lasting connection to Dick Whitman, his brother Adam, kills himself.  It’s a series of major moments, but all of them feel very earned-there was no rush here, and though none of these moments would seem as strong years later, they started a great train toward whom these characters would eventually become.

4. “The Strategy” (#7.6)

Don-and-Peggy episodes are the crème de la crème of the series, and even the most casual of fans get giddy when they come about.  Don and Peggy bouncing ideas off of each other, both of them questioning their lives over the course of the entire series is such a Mad Men genius moment.  Other shows tie together loose ends and focus on getting as much good as possible, but Mad Men is very much about the bitter, and is smart enough to know that these people have made serious, life-altering mistakes (much like we all do), and it’s deeply fulfilling to hear them discuss this.  The entire episode is a roller coast of excitement, though, from Joan getting a “marriage of convenience” proposal from Bob and Roger finally realizing a way that he can matter in his firm (and outmaneuver Harry and Jim), but nothing quite beats Don and Peggy (and Pete), eating in a Burger Chef, enjoying the spoils of their work.

3. “The Other Woman” (#5.11)

During the late aughts, when I would put together my lists of favorite TV shows of the year, Lost and Mad Men consistently were pitted against each other, and so I’ve long thought it funny that they coincidentally both have an episode entitled “The Other Woman.”  With all due respect to Juliet Burke, who was in the center of Lost’s episode, this is a considerably stronger installment in a series.  It also features one of the great moments of Christina Hendricks’ career (if she wasn’t going to win the Emmy that year…), as the entire firm tries desperately to land Jaguar, and we get perhaps the twistiest moments in the history of Mad Men (Weiner strives harshly for realism and no-spoilers in his series, an attitude I applaud, but rarely does he give the audience something that seems like a switcheroo).  The pinnacle of the episode is Don, trying to save perhaps his best true friend on the show, Joan (Peggy, let’s be honest, is more of a proxy daughter), from sleeping with Herb Rennet to land the account.  He arrives too late, and Joan becomes a partner in the firm, but at a terrible and degrading price.

If that weren’t enough, you get the final moments of the episode, with Peggy finally admitting that she’s had enough and is going to work for Ted.  In a deeply affecting scene, you have Don being at first dismissive of Peggy quitting, and then realizing that he’s lost her, not taking her hand to shake it but to kiss it.  Elisabeth Moss’s “don’t be a stranger” was a heart-breaking cap to a season-long fight.

2. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” (#3.13)

My favorite moment in this landmark, pinnacle episode is Don stating, “Joan, what a good idea.”  It’s the most matter-of-fact line in a series that finds so much in silence, and it was also the moment I remember watching (live) and thinking “yes, Joan-that’s everyone!”  This entire episode, though, after a season where so much suffering occurred at Sterling Cooper, was a wonderful splash of water for a show that could have risked becoming stale if it started to repeat itself, which it looked like it was about to do.  Instead, we had the entire gang quitting in the face of the McCann deal, and in an Ocean’s Eleven style heist, steal office supplies and clients away.  We also saw the dissolution of Betty Draper’s marriage to Don, as she jets off with Henry to get a divorce in Reno.  All-in-all, we were just as excited as Don when he showed up at his new apartment, suitcase in hand.  This was the start of something new.

1. “The Suitcase” (#4.7)

In the giant pantheon of Mad Men episodes, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more universally adored than “The Suitcase,” which comes as close as the series could to being a bottle episode (it focuses almost entirely on Peggy and Don, or people reflected in their eyes).  The result is mesmerizing and fascinating acting from both Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm, each feeling around two highly introverted characters.  We see them argue, air their dirty laundry, and weep over the failures of their relationships and their dreams.  We left this episode, almost exactly in the middle of the show, knowing much more about both of these haunted individuals, and would continually find ourselves coming back to the Suitcase, remembering how much an opened door can change your life.

And those are my favorite Mad Men episodes-there’s certainly a plethora of additional episodes to choose from-which are your favorites?  Who would you put at number one?  Share in the comments!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Six Seats Isn't Enough

Sen. Harry Reid: The once and future majority leader?

In recent weeks, the consensus has started to form that the Republicans are likely to reclaim the Senate this November.  No one seems to want to say who will be the losers on the Democratic side once you get past the first three states (Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia), but everyone agrees that with the Republicans making gains in Arkansas and Iowa and keeping most of the red states extremely close, that the math is there to hit the requisite six seats.

This is hardly good news for the Democrats, and it’s atrocious news for President Obama, despite what you might read in spin articles.  There is little incentive for the GOP to try and appoint more of the President’s judicial and executive appointments, which at this juncture is probably the only thing that seems to be able to get through Congress.  President Obama will still be able to raise money and command some respect through executive orders, but his ability to govern in a checks-and-balances system will be DOA for the final two years, and he’ll have to fight off claims that he is an ineffective leader for the rest of his second term.

However, there is a slight silver lining here.  About the best that the President will be able to do is issue vetoes, and neither house of Congress will remotely approach a veto-proof majority for the Republicans even in the rosiest of situations.  Therefore, the Republicans still have to wait for Chris Christie or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul for two more years before they are able to finally pass some legislation that will resonate with their conservative base.

The problem with waiting is that six seats isn’t enough.  The Republicans, if they get a bare minimum majority (something, like, say, AR/MT/SD/WV/LA and either AK/IA, which is probably the most logical turn-of-events), will almost certainly lose their majority in 2016.

Democrats will have the advantage of considerably stronger turnout in 2016, and if Hillary Clinton is the nominee (and every indication is that she would be), a lot of the harder-to-GOTV Democratic demographics (single women, African-Americans, and Latinos) may well turn out for such an historic candidate from a demographic standpoint, as well as her strong connections to these communities.

This could be disaster for the GOP with the reverse of 2014 taking place.  Whereas this year only one Obama-held state is held by a Republican (versus seven Romney-held states being held by Democrats), in 2016 every Democratic incumbent senator is running in a state that Obama won in 2012.  On the flipside, seven Republicans are running in states that the President won in both his reelections, and North Carolina (which the president barely lost in 2012 and won in 2008) also has a Republican up for reelection.  It’s admittedly foolhardy to postulate two years in advance in politics, but the facts in this race are hard to argue with.

Not all of these seats are created equally, of course, but they are enough so that the GOP should be extremely worried about retaining their hypothetical majority.  At the top of the list would have to be Illinois, which is the bluest state in the country to have elected a Republican to the Senate, and while Sen. Mark Kirk has done a relatively decent job at maintaining a moderate record, is probably toast in a partisan environment that would have a Democrat at the top of the ticket (to put it in perspective, no Republican in the country represents a bluer constituency in either house of Congress or as governor).  With national Democrats high on Rep. Tammy Duckworth, they may even be able to avoid a primary.

There’s also Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, another persistently blue state that is seeing its governor’s race tighten in recent weeks.  Even if Scott Walker or Paul Ryan are at the top of the ticket, that may not help Ron Johnson.  Tommy Thompson, arguably the state’s strongest Republican on-paper, couldn’t win in a presidential race in 2012 against a liberal congresswoman; it’s hard to see Johnson surviving with Democrats excited to elect Hillary in a blue state.  The Republicans best hope would be a splintered Democratic primary or a lack of a top tier challenger, but most people think that former Sen. Russ Feingold has held off on running for Herb Kohl’s seat and challenging Scott Walker because he wants to defeat the guy who took his job, and his popularity amongst Democrats would ensure a cleared primary field.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte has a slightly redder state to deal with, but arguably has the toughest challenger of the three.  Gov. Maggie Hassan is a rising star in Democratic circles, and seems intent on becoming part of the national conversation.  Short of running for the White House her only real shot at doing this would be to take on Ayotte, and depending on how the Democrats do in 2014, she may be able to carry yet another New England Republican out of Washington (Ayotte is one of only two currently, the other being Susan Collins in Maine).  Keep a close eye on Carol Shea-Porter this cycle in NH-1 and see if she wins.  If Shea-Porter can carry the more conservative of the state’s two seats in a GOP-favored year, Ayotte’s chances of being a one-termer increase dramatically.

The other four Obama-held states are all vulnerable, but not nearly to the extent that these three are.  Sen. Pat Toomey has moderated his rhetoric and voting record, though he could be vulnerable (his biggest asset may be the flawed bench Pennsylvania Democrats have in Washington and Harrisburg).  Sen. Rob Portman will likely battle from both the left and the right in 2016, thanks to his support of gay marriage, though I think his personal popularity makes him the favorite over someone like Reps. Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan.  Sen. Marco Rubio represents the most marginal state in the union, and while the Democrats don’t have a particularly robust bench there, there are people like Rep. Patrick Murphy who are young enough to make a dent in the electorate.

Finally there are Sens. Chuck Grassley and Richard Burr in Iowa and North Carolina, respectively, both of whom have retirement rumors spreading about them two years out, and may want to try and make a run for it after seeing what happened to Richard Lugar and Thad Cochran.  Either open seat would become a major draw for both parties, but the Democrats in particular would relish a chance at either seat in a presidential year considering people like Gov. Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Roy Cooper are amongst the more popular politicians in their home states.  Even John McCain’s seat could be vulnerable if the iconic senator were to retire.

The Republicans, admittedly, have their chances in 2016, but they are in blue states like Nevada and Colorado, and are against incumbents that survived the Republican tsunami in 2010-these are not gadfly candidates and don’t have the luxury of coasting through their previous election.  The GOP may be in for a strong battle win in 2014, but could well lose the war when 2016 comes and all of the cards have been dealt.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

Film: Boyhood (2014)
Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelai Linklater
Director: Richard Linklater
Oscar History: This will largely depend on how long critics’ memories are this cycle.  The film was hailed as not only wonderful, but a landmark-if critical consensus catches up, we might see directing, writing, or editing citations, but it could also be largely forgotten ala Short-Term 12 last year.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

Great cinema changes our perceptions on how we see the world.  It can make us rethink how we approach our lives, and how we encounter love, death, mercy, and all of the capital-letter emotions that define who we are as individuals.  Great cinema, however, rarely does this while challenging how movies are made.  That’s the really remarkable thing that Richard Linklater seems to want to accomplish with his filmography.  Linklater has, through both this film and the Celine and Jesse movies, created something truly special-a look in on a narrative tale of people, told in an exciting, chronological way, and through immense realism (both films took decades to make), finds a way to connect with the audience in a way that old-age makeup and different actors never could.  Boyhood is a testament to one man’s extended and devoted vision to a story, and is easily the first truly vital reason to go to the movies this year.

(Spoilers Ahead) The project itself seems mammoth.  Told over twelve years, Linklater follows a fictional family through their pitfalls and heartaches and high-points.  The movie was actually filmed over those twelve years, so we get to see the subtle ways that the actors age and don’t age.  One of the things I’ve always found a bit silly about aging in the movies is that people rarely change as dramatically as the Rick Bakers would let you believe.  Here we see the subtlety of, say, Ethan Hawke’s face becoming a bit thinner, a bit more worn, rather than the larger scale job that another film would have done to “naturally age” its star.  The realism in this film is one of the clear draws.  You feel almost as if you are seeing a documentary, it’s so astonishing when a scene passes and we have seen our main character of Mason Jr. (Coltrane) shifting his hairstyle or suddenly sporting an earring or a slight growth spurt.  This makes even the most mundane of scene shifts thrilling-what year will we find ourselves in next?

This isn’t the first time that a filmmaker has used time-specific realism to tell multiple stories.  Francois Truffaut would notably use this in his five Antoine Doinel films, with Jean-Pierre Leaud portraying the director’s most iconic character in five pictures, going from life as a young boy into a fully-fledged adult.  Linklater, though, takes it a step further and seems to almost react to Coltrane’s real-life personalities.  You see what Coltrane looks like and has started to progress into, and you feel like the story has shifted to reflect that he went through an emo-youth phase, for example.  It’s a deeply reflexive film, and while Truffaut gave us multiple movies to process Doinel (and Linklater did with Jesse and Celine), here we receive them all in one continuous spin.

To get into the plot of the movie would be to make it sound boring, because life is rarely a series of exciting events (I have been on a Desperate Housewives binge watch at my apartment, and while I love that film totally, I will admit that it’s ridiculous in the face of something so utterly realistic, considering that people rarely get engaged after six-week courtships and the like), but instead simply trying a first cigarette or a random conversation about painted fingernails.  The performances are deeply naturalistic.  Coltrane and Linklater grow completely in their characters, and I love the way that their natural tendencies as both actors and siblings grow throughout the film (there’s a terrific scene late in the film where Lorelai Linklater’s Samantha subtly stands up for her brother-in any other film this would have been a “big deal” but here you hardly notice it).  The professional actors in the cast, led by Hawke and Arquette, both feel very much like a part of this world and not movie stars in a documentary.  You have to hand it to actors who experienced varied levels of success during this filming process (particularly Arquette with Medium) to never feel like they had to miss out on a part of the movie because of scheduling conflicts or demand more from their roles.  It’s a wonderfully acted quartet, and takes the method-style of acting to a whole new level.

This brings me to something I want to make sure I slip in somewhere in this review.  If I have one public service announcement for audiences is that it is imperative that you watch this film on a big-screen and not relegate it to a Netflix rental.  It is expanding more profusely at the moment (and based on the per-screen averages it’s still pulling in, hopefully will continue to expand), but this is a movie that you have to experience without distractions, because you won’t be able to notice when you pause the movie in your living room the rolling cavalcade of time, since time is really at the center of this film.  You get scene after scene, never really slowing done (it moves faster than any 166-minute film I’ve ever watched), exhausting you at some points with how quickly a moment passes (you want to see more of, say, Mason Jr.’s relationship with his dad or learn more about one of his mother’s marriages), but always unrelenting down the way to the end.

There’s really nothing more to say about this movie, except that it’s something that has to be watched.  In a summer that we have seen disappointment after disappointment, this is a film that not only lives up to the hype, but makes you rethink a darkened theater and what it can accomplish.  It’s a film that is every bit as special as you think it could be from the trailers, and will make you weep, reflect, and smile.  Well done to all involved.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ranting On...John Walsh and the Stupidity of Plagiarism

Sen. John Walsh (D-MT)
The Montana Senate race has confused me for months now.  Most of this year's Senate races have gone according to how I expected.  Sure, Bruce Braley and Tom Cotton haven't been particularly compelling candidates, but polls have reflected that, and sure, Mark Begich and Joni Ernst have been surprisingly strong candidates, but you always expect certain people to rise to the top once they get into the energy of a campaign.  However, Montana hasn't made a lot of sense to me.  I never really expected John Walsh to win, but I was stunned that a state that hadn't elected a Republican to the Senate in fourteen years would so quickly deny a Democrat a seat they've held for over 100 years (no Republican has held this seat since the passage of the 17th Amendment, one of only three seats in the country that can make that claim).

I mean, Walsh is a war hero who fought in Iraq and led operations in Montana's 2000 wildfires.  He has a Bronze Star.  He's a statewide office holder.  And perhaps most importantly, with Max Baucus appointed Ambassador to China, he's a sitting U.S. Senator.  This might not mean much (incumbent senators don't quite have the same cache when they're appointed), but it does mean more money and more push within his caucus to get key bills passed.  Harry Reid has been quite Machiavellian recently when it comes to who gets to introduce key legislation, and in particular this is the case when you're a vulnerable incumbent up for reelection this year.  All of this added up to Walsh doing better than what he was doing as the summer wore on (the only major poll in the race was showing his GOP opponent up by 18-points).

This was starting to become evident in the race.  A recent Gravis poll had shown Daines up by only four points, and Walsh was starting to run a better campaign with more airtime and stronger legislation in the Senate.  This race, unlike that of say South Dakota, was going to close, and Daines one-term and a promotion aspect in the race wasn't going to help him (Rep. Rick Berg is a recent example of people not liking someone running for a promotion from the House to the Senate with less than one-term in the lower body, even if they like their party).  There was a distinct possibility that in a year where the Democrats are in desperate need of cutting into Republicans' momentum that Montana could at least reach the status of Kentucky or Louisiana on the map.

That's no longer the case.  John Walsh's plagiarism scandal is a fatal hit to a campaign that couldn't afford one.  There's really no way of disproving the fact that Walsh plagiarized his 2007 grad paper-the evidence speaks for itself.  And this is a hit to a man who has had some bumps in the road already.  This wasn't a youthful indiscretion-Walsh was in his mid-40's when he plagiarized the paper, and while his excuse of PTSD may be valid and could in fact be the truth, the fact that the campaign at first denied and then backpedaled left a sour taste in my mouth, much less someone who is a swayable voter.

Politicians frequently recover from plagiarism scandals.  They're hardly on-par with scandals that involve prison sentences or sex.  However, they do take a hit.  Someone like Joe Biden, for example, eventually bounced back to become the Vice President, but his 1988 plagiarism scandal derailed his campaign for president and meant he had to spend twenty more years in the Senate when he could have taken on George Bush for the White House.  Sen. Richard Blumenthal commited arguably the biggest such scandal in recent years when he misrepresented his military service in Vietnam, nearly costing the Democrats a slam-dunk seat in Connecticut (for a while there he was nearly margin-of-error tied with Linda McMahon in the polls).  These men, however, were running their campaigns on friendly territory, something Montana hardly is for a Democrat.

And so, as a result, this is the end of the road for John Walsh.  What once was a longshot bid for the Senate has now become a no-shot bid.  Walsh will continue to be a former senator for the rest of his life, and may well make a comeback in the future, but his shot of being in Congress next year went to nil because of a 14-page paper.  That's all; one paper that he arguably could have written in a handful of hours cost him a shot at a Senate seat.  And that, kids, is why you never cheat.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

5 Thoughts on Tuesday's Primaries

Democratic Senate Candidate Michelle Nunn

I skipped last week’s primaries but with only a few Tuesday’s worth noting for the rest of the year (including major Democratic races in Massachusetts and Hawaii, because Democrats do have primaries too), I didn’t think I could pass up the runoff elections in Georgia Tuesday night.  Here are my five thoughts about the results:

1. Polling Sucks this Year

Admittedly, they were not all the crème de la crème of the political polling world, but almost all polling and conventional wisdom had Rep. Jack Kingston, a longtime Republican congressman, defeating businessman David Perdue.  In a year where polling has been sketchy at best (see also the Mississippi Senate primary and Eric Cantor’s reelection campaign), it is becoming extremely difficult to see the actual race between all of the polls.  I’d like to think that this should hopefully cut down on polling companies that are out there (this is a less is more sort of circumstance), but considering the way the media covers every poll that comes out, I doubt that happens.

2. Is this Good News for Michelle Nunn?

The big question of the morning, particularly since this is the first GOP surprise against the establishment in a Senate primary this year (Kingston was a longtime legislator and had more support out of Washington) is whether or not Perdue’s victory makes the Republicans more or less certain of victory in this race.  I do feel that Perdue adds an element of “what will happen? “  that Kingston doesn’t.  Perdue has said a few off-the-cuff comments against some of his primary opponents that give him more potential to say something ostentatious (Kingston is more practiced), though he doesn’t have the Washington politician baggage for Nunn to use (the perfect opponent for her, Paul Broun, didn’t survive to the runoff).

3. The Democrats Have Done Well This Year in Georgia

This is particularly important because the Democratic Party has done an amazing job this year in Georgia.  Name me another red state where the Democrats got a decent candidate against every statewide Republican.  Though all of the press has been about Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn running strong races against Republicans in a state where demographics favor the GOP, but by a decreasing margin, it’s worth noting that Democrats got a number of politicians of various experience levels to run for all of the constitutional offices in the state.  As the Democrats position themselves for 2016 and beyond in the Peach State (which looks a lot like Virginia did eight years ago), a strong showing by either Carter or Nunn in November could create coattails, giving Democrats in the state something they are severely lacking: a bench.

4.  The End of the Road for Bob Barr?

Few politicians in the past two decades have had a career quite as storied as Rep. Bob Barr’s.  Elected during the 1994 landslide by defeating longtime incumbent Buddy Darden, Barr went on to be one of the most boisterous and controversial figures in Congress during his eight-year tenure there (he was one of the House managers during the Clinton impeachment trials, probably his most noted achievement in Congress).  He later went on to be a vehement critic of the Bush administration, and adapted a Libertarian philosophy that won him the party’s nomination for President in 2008 against Barack Obama and John McCain.  His loss in the runoff (which was expected) probably spells the end of any hope of Barr reaching Congress again-his appearance in the runoff was a bit of a surprise to begin with, and it’s doubtful he’ll be in a situation where he’s that close to winning a seat again.

5. Jody Hice is a Name You’re About to Learn

While Bob Barr and his headline-grabbing talking points are not going to be in Washington next year, Jody Hice won the primary race to succeed Paul Broun (and when you’re looking more eyebrow-raising than Paul Broun…).  With Michele Bachmann leaving Congress, John Boehner may have been breathing a sigh of relief, but Hice will surely make up for her absence.  Hice has made deeply incendiary remarks about Islam not qualifying under the first amendment, said incredibly offensive things about gay people (both that they are trying to turn America’s youth gay and that same-sex marriage is similar to losing a parent in a car accident), and has said that women should be able to run for office, provided they are “within the authority of their husband.”  So yeah, this guy will be in Congress next year.  Good luck America.

And those are my thoughts coming out of Georgia-there’s one more thought I have regarding the Senate race, but we’ll be getting there this weekend.  What about you?  Anything I missed in Georgia on Tuesday?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Begin Again (2014)

Film: Begin Again (2014)
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener
Director: John Carney
Oscar History: With Harvey behind the movie, I would suspect that we’ll see at least one nomination for Best Original Song, probably “Lost Stars.”
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Seven years ago (man, time flies), John Carney created something really special called Once.  I remember sitting in the theater of the movie, just letting the beautiful, epic music wash over me.  It was something to behold, and even though the stage musical could never be as good as the film (though Steve Kazee came close), that music was transcendent.

(Spoilers Ahead) So I was nervous headed into Begin Again, particularly after the first ten minutes.  This was not the film that I was expecting.  Once is a blue moon sort of situation, something you cannot possibly repeat and the sort of artwork that defines a person’s career for always (he can write a thousand books, and people will still think Stephen King’s best novel is The Stand).  But the beginning of this movie makes you worry you’ve stumbled into a truly tragic film.  Mark Ruffalo is overacting to the hilt as Dan (we get it, he’s an oblivious jerk, we don’t need it beaten into our head), and Catherine Keener once again is lost at the edges of a film (seriously-did she sign a compact with the devil after Into the Wild to only take uninteresting roles in movies-is that what getting nominated for Capote cost her?).

However, once we get into Gretta’s (Knightley) story, the film picks up, and we get the real centerpiece of the film: the music.  It’s hard to compare with the calming sea of The Swell Season, but we get close with the upbeat jazz of this film’s score.  I loved every time that we heard Gretta or her arrogant boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, perfectly cast in a role that knows his thespian limitations) open their mouths to sing.  The film is built around a really wonderful concept: that records are so overproduced that they need to get out of the studio, and so we hear the sounds of New York in the background.  The movie is at its absolute best whenever it is centering the plot around the music being created: Carney’s writing and directing clearly knows how to frame that up in a way to make each song go with the theme of the film and still feel special.

The music is enough, quite frankly, to recommend the movie.  It’s not just worth it to buy the soundtrack (though you’ll want to), but you also need to see how it comes alive in the plot.  The rest of the film, it must be said, never quite hits the high notes of the music and the musical numbers.  Ruffalo’s character never quite reaches “real” for me-he relies too heavily on clichés.  Ruffalo is an actor that I go hot-and-cold on: he’s nearly always entertaining, but there are moments onscreen when he thinks the work isn’t up to his level that his acting tends to suffer, and he can’t sell the clichéd scenes with his daughter in particular (it’s so odd, because his best work as an actor remains his misguided uncle scenes in You Can Count on Me, a modern masterpiece on-par with Once).   There are moments he’s there (the “date” with Knightley), but as a whole this feels like it should have gone to an actor with a little harsher edge, or one who can elevate so-so material (not just raise great material).

Knightley is better, though she too doesn’t always seem to understand the motives of her character.  Is she actually in love, or is she just pretending to be?  Is she just as shallow as her boyfriend (she gets into a kerfuffle late in the film that if you look at it objectively reeks of stubbornness)?  Knightley doesn’t always let these ideas percolate, but only seems to really come alive in the songs.  I actually quite liked Levine, but he doesn’t have the abilities that the other two actors do when they’re at their greatest and is merely fine when it comes to the actual performance (unlike Justin Timberlake, though, he was smart enough to start out with a role that he could actually pull off).  The best cast member, actually, is James Corden, who is utterly charming as Gretta’s befuddled, down-on-his-luck best friend.  He finds some really great side moments (does he love her, is he jealous of her ability?), and makes the most of a very small character (and makes his Steve seem like a character that you would genuinely root for Gretta to end up with over the main character and the handsome ex).

Overall, therefore, this is not Once.  This is not going to make the tops of greatest film lists and you won’t opine for it seven years from now when John Carney makes another musical.  But what I will say is that this, in a sea of summer blockbusters that went nowhere, is a refreshing film with plot, life, unpredictability, and most vibrant of all, music.