Wednesday, October 22, 2014

OVP: Director (2013)

OVP: Best Director (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

My Thoughts: Frequently, you have to wonder what drives someone to split their ballot between Picture and Director in the Academy.  In so many people’s minds, these are essentially the same thing.  The director helms the picture, is involved (and many times, responsible) for where it heads and almost every aspect of the film’s ultimate product.  It seems smart that they are synonymous in the minds of voters.  And yet, on occasion, even when they have the option not to, they end up splitting the vote, which was the case with 2013, when the Best Picture winner beat the Best Director winner and vice versa.

It’s hard to argue with the results, at least when it comes to Best Director, however.  Gravity is clearly a director’s achievement.  It takes a visionary to conceive of something so vast and yet so clearly rendered.  It isn’t that we haven’t gone into space before as a cinematic audience: Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas have ensured that we have ventured there countless times before.  But Alfonso Cuaron managed to do something we haven’t felt in a long-time: he made it real and within our reach.  Though of course Sandra Bullock is floating around in some earthbound feat of technology, you can feel the sheer grandeur of the heavens, the enormity of the earth, and even more daunting and petrifying, the stunning infinity of what goes beyond our atmosphere.  Cuaron’s direction uses that pressure, the way that we cling to the world we know, as vast and expansive and insanely large as it may be to an effect I’ve never seen before in a movie.

Steve McQueen also knows how to play a bit with the world beyond our own, though he does it in a far more controlled environment.  Set in the American South, 12 Years a Slave, the best choices that McQueen makes as a director aren’t the wide expanses of the humid South, but instead by showing us the moments just beyond our hero Solomon’s reach-McQueen gives us just enough side moments, with hints of future atrocities that are taking place on neighboring farms or indications of the thousands of other men and women put into slavery.  The actual central story occasionally veers too closely to a traditional narrative (mostly because it’s based on a true story), and I wasn’t wild about the framing of the ending, but there are so many distinct touches in this film that you can easily forgive the occasional tangent into the expected.

The Wolf of Wall Street was Marty’s eighth nomination for Best Director (and his twelfth overall-the man will be discussed quite a bit in our OVP write-ups).  Therefore, it’s not unexpected for Marty to be in this lineup.  What is unexpected is the way that Marty can continue to create controversy.  I know that one of the conversation pieces about Wolf of Wall Street was regarding Marty’s alleged glamorization of Jordan Belfort’s life, but let’s take a step back and wonder what this actually meant.  Unlike, say, Nebraska (oh, we’re getting there), Wolf is a film that can pull multiple different angles and viewpoints into its web.  Certain people defended Scorsese’s opulent, oftentimes garish look into the world of wealth-at-all-costs, others lambasted him for turning Belfort into a humane victim-of-circumstance.  Personally, I was in the middle, but the fact that Scorsese can still create a movie that is epic in scope and be the most rightfully controversial of the bunch is a testament to his continued care toward his filmography.  The Wolf of Wall Street is occasionally overlong, but it’s always fascinating to watch, and Scorsese continues to have something fascinating to say to the audience.

That’s less than I can say for Alexander Payne in Nebraska (see, we got there).  Payne’s lack of a directorial vision is clear, or at least it’s clear and far too convoluted to be celebrated.  The movie is essentially supposed to be about the debilitating way that Alzheimer’s rips apart the moments we expected to have as we got older, and the way that only a few family members know you through your life and get to be there for the good, and more so, the bad.  However, through Payne’s lens these interesting thoughts that the script occasionally has are bounded down by trying for too many “let’s-show-how-simple-the-flyover-states-are” comic moments and too little unearned payoff, particularly with the two sons and their journey.  Payne rarely has anything interesting to say with where his camera is pointing, frequently just catching reaction shots and not lingering in a way that made Election far more interesting than expected.  If his filmography is going to continue to be a downward slide, my hope is that the Academy at least realizes this so I don’t have to continue to watch his increasingly tepid and boring pictures.

The final nominee is another director who has traded the more interesting for the conventional.  There’s more to like in American Hustle than Nebraska, mainly thanks to the occasionally interesting performances and the outlandish but fairly accurate makeup work (I think this will probably be my last gripe in this direction, but what was AMPAS thinking skipping American Hustle for that trophy?).  However, Russell’s work itself is a total letdown.  This film is too all-over-the-place in where it takes its characters and frequently takes tangents (like the entire Robert de Niro extended-cameo thing) that go nowhere and has the characters so constantly second guess themselves that you leave not knowing who they were, and not in a good way (the only way that the ending pays off is if we care enough about Bale and Adams’ characters to actually feel that the wool has been pulled over our eyes, and we don’t know them as their true selves enough for that to payoff).  All-in-all, a step down from the interesting places he took The Fighter a few years back, and like Payne, a continual lack of payoff in his work.

Other Precursor Contenders: Best Director is one of those rare fields where the Globes, Guilds, and BAFTA awards all have the same number of nominees (aside from the supporting actor races, this is the only OVP category where this is the case).  Therefore, we should expect uniformity, and for the most part that's what we received.  The Globes gave their top trophy to Cuaron, but skipped Scorsese in favor of Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips.  The DGA Awards also honored Cuaron, and also found room for Greengrass, but in this case it was at the expense of Alexander Payne.  The BAFTA Awards also honored Cuaron (sensing a trend here?), also honored Greengrass, and once again we saw a miss for Mr. Payne.  All-in-all, Greengrass was clearly the sixth place and one of the odder misses considering that Payne's picture is even if you throw out your opinions of the film, less of a director's achievement on paper.
Directors I Would Have Nominated: I certainly would have found room for Sofia Coppola, who created something mesmerizing and a uniquely true vision in The Bling Ring (her films, unlike Payne's, continue to get more interesting and add to her overall filmography, even if less people and critics are seeing them).  I also would have found room for Spike Jonze's Her, a monumental look at the ways we learn to love and use technology to replace humanity in our lives.  And I'd finally like some sort of recognition for Richard Linklater's continued brilliance with the Jesse-and-Celine trilogy, all three of which were wonderful, with Before Midnight being the most bitter and perhaps the most "directorial" of the films.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar continued the trend of honoring Cuaron, with McQueen and Russell falling behind.
My Choice: I'm going to go with the consensus here-Cuaron's work in creating a unique filmic achievement in Gravity is too difficult to ignore, and why would you want to?  McQueen follows, with Marty, Russell, and Payne coming behind.

Those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Did you also find Cuaron to be the perfect choice for the winner, or were you hoping for McQueen?  Does anyone else feel that Payne and Russell continue to have less interesting things to say the more celebrated they become?  And why is Marty immune from this trend?  Share your thoughts, as well as your choice for Best Director of 2013, in the comments!

Past Best Director Contests: 2009201020112012

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

Who will follow Jared?
Sorry for the delay and lack of posts the past two days.  As I mentioned a few times last week, I have had the cold that has been going around most of Minnesota, and as a result I needed to spend the weekend in bed trying valiantly to get better (I also needed to organize my life a little bit, which got completely out-of-whack in the past few weeks, and the illness didn’t help).

That being said, I’ll give you a brief preview of the next couple of weeks on the blog before I start in our Oscar check-in.  While I will continue to strive to write two blog posts a day, I’ll actually be working on a few larger scale projects on the blog (as well as re-starting a writing project that won’t be on the blog, but I’m extremely excited to get started on again after dropping it for a couple of years), and so I cannot guarantee we’ll have two posts a day (the past two days will be an aberration though-we’ll always have at least one post a day!).

While the off-blog writing project will remain just for me to work on, the on-blog projects I will discuss right now.  We’ll be finishing up two of our series in the next two weeks, with both the 2013 OVP and the John’s Favorite Shows final two entries being created (those links click to the most recent installments-at the bottom of the posts are all of the past entries if you need to catch up).  We’ll also be doing an October check-in on the five main Oscar races (as well as perhaps some other Oscar categories, time permitting), and most importantly, we’ll be doing a series of gigantic posts detailing my predictions for the 2014 Midterm elections, which will be occurring two weeks from today (are you ready to vote-if you haven't gotten the message, the Democrats desperately need all of the votes they can get so make sure you're ready; if you're a Republican, I can suggest some movies that will be out then that could be worth checking out...kidding, kidding (kind of)).  This, along with a few film reviews are what you have to look forward to, so stick around!

We’re going to start with Best Supporting Actor mostly because that category is insane this year.  While the other categories have started to take shape, the Supporting Actor race feels wide-open, and definitely where a savvy Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin should be spending their time.  That’s because when Supporting Actor is wide-open, unlike the lead actor category, this field tends to settle on five names rather quickly.  Look at something like 2009’s Supporting Actor race for a hint: these five men were at one point part of a much larger lineup, but they became impenetrable despite all but Waltz and Harrelson at the time seeming like “sure-things.”

J.K. Simmons
While in October there’s really no such thing as a sure-thing, there are a few fellas that seem to be courting the "lock" banner.  J.K. Simmons in what looks like a co-lead role in Whiplash certainly feels like a nominee.  Major role from a character actor everyone likes, that’s the sort of thing this category was invented to honor, and it’s difficult to see him missing in the long-run.  The same could be said for Edward Norton in Birdman, a film that is getting terrific buzz and has an actor the Academy really liked once upon a time, making it pretty easy to see him score his third Oscar nomination.

Aside from these two, though, the field still has a lot of openings, mostly because a lot of men are either competing against costars or are in films whose strength with AMPAS hasn’t really been established yet.  That leaves room for a lot of names to rise to the top of the heap.

Toward the top, and ready to strike, in my opinion, would be Tom Wilkinson in Selma, a film that I still think could be a major player at year’s end if it campaigns properly, leaving Wilkinson (or his costar Tim Roth) room in the race.  Mark Ruffalo has a major film in Foxcatcher, but will they really nominate he and Carell but not Tatum?  That seems a bit of a question mark.  In the 1980’s, Robert Duvall would have been a certain nominee, and perhaps even a sentimental win for The Judge, but the film seems pretty “average” and didn’t do well with critics, so will they forget about him?

Domhnall Gleeson
Christoph Waltz has made a career out of getting nominated for lead performances in the supporting field, so if Amy Adams makes it for Big Eyes (still a bit of a tossup), we could well see Waltz do his thing.  Unbroken and Inherent Vice both have major casts, but at this point we can’t tell who the standouts will be (Domhnall Gleeson and Miyavi are competing for Unbroken, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, and quite randomly Martin Short are making a play from Inherent Vice).  Albert Brooks didn’t have great luck a few years back for Drive, but could try to disprove history with A Most Violent Year this cycle.  And then there’s Ethan Hawke, who might benefit from “why not me too?” in comparison to all of the attention being given to his onscreen ex-wife Patricia Arquette.

Then there are the names that it’s still early enough in the cycle to speculate on pulling an upset, even though common sense says that most of the fellas up-top are our contenders.  We have the two lads from Fury (Logan Lerman and Shia LaBeouf), though the former may be too novice and the latter too loathed to make the cut.  Harvey’s push for The Imitation Game could turn Matthew Goode into this year’s Alan Alda.  There’s also that chance that one of the men of Into the Woods (Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, or depending on how he is campaigned, James Corden) or Gone Girl (Neil Patrick Harris or Tyler Perry) could make the cut, though they would have to get to campaigning pretty quickly to cut away from the pack.

Finally, there’s the very special case for Michael Caine.  As we have profiled before, if Michael Caine were to pull off the miracle and get cited for Interstellar, he would become the first actor ever to be nominated in six separate decades.  For a beloved actor who loves Oscar campaigns (or at least is marvelously good at them), this may be too good of an opportunity to pass up.

My September Predictions: Lerman, Wilkinson, Simmons, Norton, and Duvall
My October Predictions: I’ll stick with Wilkinson, Simmons, and Norton, as all of them seem to be in a position to get nominated, but I’m dropping Lerman and Duvall for now (the former is too young and not getting enough buzz from his film’s debut, the latter in a film too easy to forget…though both are viable enough that they should stay in the conversation for now).  Part of me wants to pick Caine if only for the crazy trivia that it would bring, but instead I’m going to go with Josh Brolin and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom are on everyone who has actually seen the movies' lists, and as a result I feel may be in a better position to judge.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pick a Monster, Any Monster...

All right, I've noticed a bit of a drop this week in views on the blog, and so I figured I might shake things up a little bit today for our second post, and try to get a little bit more information out of you, the wonderful reader.

This month is October, and as a result, it's the month of Halloween.  Hollywood has a long history of making great movies for Halloween, from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to John Carpenter to Wes Craven we've frequently been treated to some great moments that make us go bump in the night.  However, when it comes to true classic horror, you cannot beat the magic of Universal Studios and its long history with the monster movie.

During its heyday, Universal Studios made dozens of monster movies, many of them revered classics.  We've profiled perhaps the most famous and beloved of these monsters, Frankenstein, here and here.  However, there is more than just Boris Karloff's famed interpretation of Mary Shelley's work to rely upon-we also have six other major monsters to investigate, and that's what I'm going to do this month, but you're going to help me pick which monster we end up profiling.  Click on the right for a poll of six of the other most famed monsters in Universal Studios collection-you can vote for which one of these six I should review in the coming weeks as we prepare for Halloween (I'll probably do the Top 2, time permitting and assuming enough people vote to get to that high!).  This is our first poll on the site, so if I see enough participation, I'll make this a monthly thing to get more interaction (bonus points go to whichever candidates might get a comment or two).

Let the voting begin!

Pride (2014)

Film: Pride (2014)
Stars: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Andrew Scott, George MacKay, Jessica Gunning, Ben Schnetzer, Paddy Considine
Director: Matthew Warchus
Oscar History: Oscar doesn't really go for crowd-pleasing British comedies anymore (it didn't even nominate the massively successful Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), but expect some solid BAFTA love, and maybe a Spirit nod or two.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

I have frequently been accused of not liking happy movies, and there's some credence to this accusation.  The reality is that I think that most happy movies don't have anything interesting to say-these films have unrealistic expectations, sets of stock, frequently underwritten characters, and oftentimes have comically bad villains that just don't exist in real life.  The movies can be fun, but they just aren't particularly likely to actually happen that way, and that really takes me out of the picture.

All this is to be said that I'm just as shocked as you that the third film that I have given five stars to from 2014 is a smile-on-your-face British comedy.  But there it is-this is why whenever someone asks me what genre of film that I love, I tell them that I like all kinds, because you can turn any sort of story into a great picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is about the UK Miners' Strike of 1984, one of many controversial aspects of Margaret Thatcher's "Iron Lady" reign in the United Kingdom (this film serves as a bit of a counterweight to those people, myself included, who felt that the Meryl Streep picture didn't give a proper indication of the former Prime Minister's tenure-if you want more of my thoughts on Thatcher, click here).  The film is toward the height of this strike, when the miners are clearly losing the battle with Thatcher (in a bit of a re-write of history, the eventual ending of this film ends up being a bit glossy, as most objective observers of this strike have concluded that Thatcher and the employers won this strike rather than the miners).

The film's (true-life) premise surrounds a group of lesbian and gay activists who, in hoping to create stronger alliances with potentially like-minded allies, decide to stand in support of the miners.  It makes sense, of course-both loathe Thatcher and her politics (Thatcher's attitude toward gays, and in particular the AIDS Crisis of the 1980's, has made her a much-hated figure in the gay and lesbian community), and as a result, they would make strong allies.  Of course, what works on paper doesn't often work in real-life, and that's initially true here.  A socially-conservative community in Wales accidentally accepts the money from the gays and lesbians, and then is stuck in a pickle when they realize that LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) has raised more money and supplies than any other group has, and as a result they need to show them Welsh hospitality.

What happens next is probably one of the more unexpected moments in the film-while you would expect the film to go along a traditional route of "first they don't accept, then they do," this is only a small part of the film.  A couple of musical scenes, including a deeply memorable one where the women of the village sing the classic pro-union song "Bread and Roses," sort of set up the unlikely but clearly logical alliance between the two groups.  Instead, what occurs in ensuing scenes is a look at how their struggles end up being quite similar.  We see a number of miners persecuted for being different, and the way that they have to beg to improve their life conditions is deeply de-humanizing.  We see the gays, struggling with the heavy fall of prejudice and the continual fog of HIV that hangs in the air.  It's a pretty tough subject for a comedy, but the balance is completely there-this is the sort of film that proves you can find humor in the darkest of times, and that even the trickiest of subjects can be handled with a light touch, but dignity.

It helps that the acting ensemble is absolutely terrific.  Led by veteran character actors Imelda Staunton (whom I always love, and is jolly good fun here) and Bill Nighy (whom I am usually indifferent toward, but who is subdued enough here that he genuinely surprises), we have an entire roster of amiable and deeply-felt performances.  Of particular note for me were Jessica Gunning, playing future Labour MP Sian James as a woman discovering her voice.  I love the way that she doesn't really need to change her opinion at the film's start (she always supports the gays), but instead needs to change her attitude toward letting her voice be heard.  Equally good is Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton, the gay leader who organizes LGSM.  Schnetzer is probably best known to American audiences for his work in The Book Thief, though he's almost unrecognizable from that film.  Here, he's added some adorable gay pudge (he's pretty much the definition of a cutie pie), but still finds ways to deeply connect with his character.  I also love the way that the characters are fleshed out by only giving snippets of what is happening to the characters in their side lives (the only character that really gets a proper side life is Joe, our window into this world and a young man coming out in a tumultuous time).  Instead, we get hints of relationship troubles, long-held secrets, and deeply-rooted fears.  One of the best scenes in the movie (and one of the best scenes in a film I've seen all year) happens when a cameo appearance by Russell Tovey as Tim, Mark's former lover, shows him drunkenly flirting with Mark.  At this point we assume we may have a love interest for the main character, but instead the film discusses Tim going on a "farewell tour."  We all know what he means when this relatively healthy young man says "farewell tour" because we aren't in a time where HIV was devastating young men across the world, but to Mark it is a wake-up call as to how short his life may be in a time where the government is ignoring his well-being.  These deeply real touches throughout the film add a depth to the picture that keeps it from being just a frothy delight.

We get even more of them from Joe (MacKay), who has his own struggles with where he stands in the gay rights movement, wanting to support it but living a life in the closet.  For any gay man out there who struggled with his principles but also wanted to maintain a facade as he inched out of the closet, Joe's story is a pretty damn accurate one, far more accurate than you usually see in a picture of this liking (contrary to some beliefs, most people don't fall in love with a man and then they come out-they test the waters and tell friends and try to become accustomed to their new open lifestyle before that happens, eventually coming out in a pretty messy fashion to their family).  The scene at the end when Joe walks out on his parents, realizing that they may never see him again-devastating, but definitely real considering the time and the horrid belief system of the era.

I will weigh in before I go on the MPAA controversy surrounding this picture, which I'll admit I had forgotten until I researched a couple of points about the film, but I am aghast as to how this movie got an R-rating.  There is no sex, no significant profanity, and the closest it comes is a brief (fully-clothed) make-out session between Joe and a man he meets at a bar.  Coupled with the Love is Strange rating earlier this year, it's hard not to consider the MPAA pretty damn homophobic, and there's really no way you can convince me otherwise.

We'll end on that note, though with Pride I feel like I could talk for days about this movie, and hopefully you've caught it (if you haven't, what are you doing reading this article-get to the movies and see it immediately).  For those that have, what'd you think?  Did you tear up (after Boyhood, this is the first film to make me cry all year at the movies)?  Did people cheer at the movie (this was the first time all year where I saw a movie where there was applause and cheering at the end of the picture, which was deeply touching considering the subject matter and the way that something so unlikely doesn't seem possible in today's polarized political environment)?  And what did you think of the overall picture-was it a wonderful throwback to the 1990's-style Full Monty pictures, or did you find it too schmaltzy?  Share in the comments!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ranting On...the Extinction of the Red-State Democrat

State Sen. Jason Carter (D-GA), one of several red state Democrats
running competitive races this year
It's Friday, and that means it's time for a rant, though I must say that in this week of me struggling with being sick (I'm still there, but am, knock on wood, feeling a little bit better today as opposed to the past three days) I've been ranting quite a bit this week.  Still, though, Friday rants are one of those things I love to do on the site, and since we haven't had a political post yet today, that seems to be an appropriate avenue.

I have to say that most of the interesting things to be said about this election have been said.  Right now it's primarily about watching the polls whether they are starting to trend toward the Republicans (KS/NC Senate) or the Democrats (IA/GA Senate) and waiting to vote.  But voting is still something that I want to discuss, because 2014 is starting to look more and more like a last stand of sorts for a state's minority party, particularly when it comes to Democrats.

Looking at the Senate races in particular, there are currently twelve Democratic senators that represent states that were won by Mitt Romney, a staggering seven of which are up for reelection this year (the seats currently held by Sens. Hagan, Pryor, Landrieu, Begich, Johnson, Walsh, and Rockefeller).  Everyone has talked about how this is the reason that the Senate is so terribly in play this year, and they're right, but there's something lost in that sentiment: is this the end of the ballot-split or the minority party being competitive?

Looking a few years back, particularly for Democrats, this wouldn't have been the case.  Immediately following the 2000 election of George W. Bush, when there was a 50/50 Senate (a theoretical possibility for a few weeks from now), the Democrats had twenty seats in Bush states, while the Republicans had nine seats in Gore states.  Now that number is down considerably, with Democrats only having twelve (though it's worth noting that Republicans still have nine).  However, it's theoretically possible that after November's election, all seven of those above seats could go to the Republicans, giving the Democrats only five Romney state Senate seats (for the curious, they are currently held by Sens. Heitkamp of North Dakota, Donnelly of Indiana, McCaskill of Missouri, Tester of Montana, and Manchin of West Virginia, all five senators who were elected or reelected in 2012).

The reality is that 2014 may be the last stand of the ballot split at the ballots, and not just in the Senate.  Despite historically being able to compete on pretty conservative territory with Blue Dog Democrats, the House has seen the basic extinction of the Blue Dog, and with Reps. Mike McIntyre and Jim Matheson both retiring (and Rep. Nick Rahall potentially destined for defeat), the most conservative district held by a Democrat could shift from a Cook PVI of R+16 all the way down to a R+9.  In fact, of the seven Democrats running for reelection in districts that Mitt Romney won, the only one that seems pretty confident of returning is Patrick Murphy in Florida-18.  Theoretically the rest of them could be wiped out this election.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN)
This is part of a larger, more cohesive approach that can in part be blamed on Citizens United.  In the past a congressman like, say, Collin Peterson in Minnesota could focus most of his campaign on retail politicking, relying on years of goodwill in a rural district in order to hold his district.  Now, though, with multi-millionaires able to control specific attacks against incumbents, someone like Peterson is forced to run a digital and televised campaign, exposing his associations with national Democrats.  This is in part why the years of voter approval built up by Peterson (and the likes of Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor) don't seem to amount to as much this year.

The Republicans are not immune to this situation, they just aren't quite getting it this year.  Thanks to a pretty solid anti-Obama wave sweeping the country, it's near certain that more Republicans will represent Obama-won House and Senate seats come January, but in 2016, this is probably going to come back to bite them in the butt.  Even if the Democrats lose seats like Maine-2 or Massachusetts-6, two years from now they're almost assured to be competitive in getting them back, as a Hillary campaign would likely have strong coattails.  This is also why Republicans have to be a bit nervous about the longevity of their Senate majority-all but two of their Obama-state senators are up for reelection in 2016 (for the continually curious Sen. Heller of Nevada is up in 2018 and Sen. Collins of Maine, who has managed to be the bizarre exception to this rule, and is cruising to a win in a few weeks).

This may also be why Democrats in red states should be far more excited to vote than they clearly are: this is potentially their last chance to make a major difference.  Those seven Senate seats, coupled with competitive races in Kansas, Georgia, and Kentucky in the Senate, are probably the last time the Democrats will ever be competitive in so many red states, at least until current voting trends start to change.  Couple that with competitive gubernatorial races in Georgia, Kansas, and Alaska and you see that this is one of those last elections where the minority in these red states could still make a difference if they get out and vote in large numbers.  I frequently pity blue state Republicans and red state Democrats, since they frequently are shutdown by simply not being the majority in their state, but not this year.  The fate of three governor's races and a half dozen Senate races will be decided by whether or not ticket-splitters and the Democratic minority are able to get out to the polls.  In a few weeks, we'll find out if this is the end of the red-state Democrat.

The Selfish Giant (2013)

Film: The Selfish Giant (2013)
Stars: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne
Director: Clio Barnard
Oscar History: No nominations, though it did win Europa Cinemas Award at Cannes and was nominated for Best British Film at the BAFTA's.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

One of the more interesting things to emerge in recent years in Independent Cinema has been a more pointed look at how the poorest of people live their lives.  Looking at the impoverished and examining their world has always been present in the movies, but it usually involves some sort of rags-to-riches tale or a much glossier, rosier How Green Was My Valley style tale rather than something that truly shows how the income divide has impacted our society.

(Spoilers Ahead) This is what I was thinking as I recently watched The Selfish Giant, a small film that gained a smattering of critical attention last year.  Based loosely on the short story by Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant is the story of two teenage boys: Arbor (Chapman) and Swifty (Thomas) who are in an economically-barren part of northern England, where they sell scrap medal to Kitten (Gilder), a local dealer.  The two soon begin to collect copper wiring from telecom and railroads, an extraordinarily dangerous mission that does result in some increased amount of money for both, despite it being highly illegal.

The film takes a turn when Kitten starts to favor Swifty, who is good with his horse, over Arbor, who becomes extraordinarily jealous, and as a result becomes careless with his person, stealing copper from Kitten to sell to a neighboring town, and then eventually being blackmailed by Kitten to steal electronic power transmission wire from a nearby plant, which is of course incredibly risky, and after Arbor convinces Swifty to help him (Arbor is too small to do it by himself), Swifty eventually electrocutes himself on the wire, dying as a result.  The film then ends up going in predictable ways, with Kitten eventually giving up his business and being arrested, while Arbor is forever changed by the loss of his innocent best friend.

If this sounds like a horribly depressing film, you should know that it is.  While always quite realistic and beautiful, this is not a film for the faint of heart, never really relenting in the way that it treats its two young protagonists and their lives.  One of the most memorable sequences is them just walking through the wreckage of this dying town, where people still make their lives, but live in a sea of tiny two-room houses and lawns strewn with junk.  This is not a third world country-this is the United Kingdom-and yet the reality that poverty has reached all corners of the globe in a way that we don't always acknowledge is there.  It's a powerful message amidst a dour but effective story.

Those were my thoughts on the underseen but quite good Selfish Giant-how about yours?  Do you also like the increased focus on economic disparity in "first-world" countries at the movies (Frozen River, starring the late Misty Upham, comes to mind to me this morning of course, but there are plenty of others)?  And what did you think of this movie, frequently powerful in a markedly "life is hard" sort of way?  Share in the comments!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The State of the Senate

Michelle Nunn (D-GA), a candidate in one of the country's closest races
A few weeks ago we went through a little exercise that I thoroughly enjoyed, as it’s a way of sort of tracking what seats were gaining or losing importance.  Two weeks ago, I had nine seats that seemed to matter.  Now, I think the map has expanded a bit and we have ten seats that seem to matter to the Senate math.

Overall, the Republicans have made strides in their continued momentum in the past week that is basically undeniable.  The Democrats continue to be throwing “Hail Mary’s,” spending in states that the Republicans have long been favored in, but it will take nothing short of a miracle for them to hold onto the Senate.

This list, as a reminder, is based on the most important races in the contest to control the Senate, based on competitiveness and their likelihood of being “the pivotal seat.”  Therefore, you won’t see something like Montana, which, while certain to switch hands, is not going to be the closest race to do so.  Without further adieu, here is the list:

1. Iowa

Iowa’s race remains at Number One, though that’s a bad thing for Democrats.  This is a race that pundits are constantly reminding Democrats that wasn’t supposed to be competitive, and there’s no doubt that it clearly has become so.  Rep. Bruce Braley (D) has run a lackluster campaign, but it’s difficult to say that he hasn’t stepped up his game in the past couple of weeks, turning the election slowly but steadily into a referendum on Joni Ernst, which is probably his best chance to win.  If Braley cannot start taking the lead in some polls in the next week, however, this may be a lost cause, and the Democrats cannot possibly win the Senate without him in their majority.

2. Georgia

The Democrats have been begging for some sort of good news in the past couple of weeks, and the Peach State was one of the two places they actually got it.  Michelle Nunn leads in the latest SurveyUSA poll, which runs counter to conventional wisdom (it’s worth noting that SurveyUSA, a very reliable poll traditionally, has been sticking its neck out saying that Democrats are doing better than most national polls) by three-points, but Perdue has seen a clear loss in momentum after comments he made regarding outsourcing became public (he was tied with Nunn in a Landmark poll).  This would be huge news for Democrats, but there’s the sticky fact that Nunn, like Mary Landrieu, has to hit 50% to avoid a runoff, a race that would surely be tougher for her to win.  If she can manage to turnout voters in stronger numbers in Atlanta and maintain her momentum in the rest of the state, there’s a possibility that the Democrat could take the seat and possibly the majority, but she needs to continue to gain in the next three weeks and hope for higher than expected African-American turnout.

3. Kansas

According to Real Clear Politics, this is the closest Senate race in the country (it’s a tie in their rankings, which is close to impossible to achieve).  There is still quite a bit of trouble in determining Greg Orman’s intentions (though it seems difficult to believe that he would caucus with the Republicans, even if they have the majority-I wonder if Mitch McConnell would even let him do it at this point), but Roberts appeared continually petty in his debate against Orman (refusing to give a genuine answer to the classic “say something nice about your opponent” question), and I am starting to wonder if Orman, despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, could in fact win this thing (though he might not be the key to the Democrats winning the majority like I thought he would be a couple of weeks ago).

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC)
4. North Carolina

It says something about how much trouble the Democrats are in that they could win the Top 3 races, and still theoretically lose, thanks to the continual decline of Kay Hagan’s standing in the polls.  While Sen. Hagan has led in basically every poll, she’s done it by a miniscule margin, and I think that the NRSC’s ad buy (at nearly $6 million, one of the most expensive of the cycle) could pay off in the long run.  As of today, Hagan would barely win, but hers is one of the few races where it doesn’t appear to be stagnant, and two weeks from now I may be singing a different tune.  Hagan needs to find a way to either make the election tomorrow or stop Tillis’s momentum.  Like Iowa, it’s basically impossible for the Democrats to win the Senate without Hagan emerging victorious.  That being said, for those who still light a candle for the Democrats to keep the majority, winning the Top 4 races and Number 10 on this list is the path of least resistance at this point.

5. Louisiana

Sen. Mary Landrieu continues to be high on this list for a couple of reasons.  First, regardless of what you think might be “beneath the dignity of a senator,” it’s hard to argue she’s running the better campaign to connect with Louisiana voters (keg stands and all).  Second, she gets an extra few weeks onto her campaign that will either be entirely under the glare of the country (if the majority is at stake) or completely out of it (which may actually help her-Landrieu may be the one Democrat that could actually gain from the Republicans winning the majority, since it will turn her race into a battle of personalities, favoring her in colorful Louisiana).  Still, though, she may be the key to the Democrats holding the Senate if she can turn this into a referendum on whether Cassidy, a pretty bland politician by Louisiana standards, is ready to represent the state.

6. Colorado

The biggest drop on this list, Sen. Mark Udall (D) is nearing Pryor/Begich territory in terms of him being “theoretically possible, but likely a lot cause.”  It’s been weeks since he led in a poll, and his campaign has been mocked for overplaying the “War on Women” card.  About the only hope he has that Begich and Pryor don’t have is that this is an Obama-state.  The Democrats do have a base advantage if turnout is high enough, and Democrats have had a lot of luck statewide (Udall could benefit from straight-ticket Hickenlooper voters, and they mailed out ballots to all registered voters this year, likely resulting in an uptick in turnout which should help Udall), but this race on-paper is far less likely to go Democratic than Iowa or North Carolina, two states it is frequently grouped along with.

7. Alaska

I’m putting Alaska just ahead of Arkansas again because of polling irregularities, and because if the Bannock Street project is successful, it will be so in the Last Frontier.  Begich’s campaign has fallen on hard times, and if the polls are remotely correct, he’ll lose to Attorney General Dan Sullivan.  His only hope is getting a number of voters from the state’s rural population that the Bannock Street project is targeting to get out to vote, despite their propensity to skip elections.  This will be interesting to watch, but if Begich cannot close the polls it’s hard to see a GOTV effort making up a 4-point polling deficit.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)
8. Arkansas

Mark Pryor’s state of Arkansas doesn’t have quite the erratic polling history that Begich’s does in Alaska, so his polls, roughly similar to Begich’s in number, are likely to reflect reality.  Again, Pryor could benefit over Rep. Tom Cotton (R) if personal goodwill runs his way.  With longtime incumbents like Pryor, Landrieu, and Udall, there's a theoretical possibility that most of the undecideds break their way, or that the Bannock Street project (which has been huge in this state) could end up helping.  Still, though, Pryor continues to be the most vulnerable incumbent member of Congress in either house, which is an extraordinarily tough place to be in; it would take a miracle for him to hold this seat.

9. South Dakota

The only new entry in this race, South Dakota is more on this list thanks to the emerging chaos that it has brought to the Senate cycle than anything else.  Despite an abysmal campaign and a lackluster series of ads and campaign stops, former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) seems fairly likely to beat Democratic congressional aide Rick Weiland and independent former Sen. Larry Pressler to pick up this Democratic seat, but two polls have shown either Weiland or Pressler within four points of Rounds.  It's pretty clear that if Weiland in particular could pick off enough of the Pressler Democrats without resulting in a similar exodus for Pressler Republicans, he could pull off the mother of all upsets this cycle (it's worth noting that South Dakota is the only state on this list aside from Georgia to have gotten better odds for the Democrat winning than the Republican since our last write-up).  Still, though, without at least one poll showing Weiland in the lead, I am just not ready to buy it.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
10. New Hampshire

If you're looking for a race that both parties are fairly confident of, look no further than the Granite State.  Democrats are sure that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the first woman to serve in both the Senate and as governor, is on-track to win a second term here with relative ease.  Meanwhile, Republicans are increasingly bullish on former Sen. Scott Brown's chances, and polling in the state has been all over the map (though the average poll numbers continue to favor the Democrat).  It's worth noting that while New Hampshire has become more and more Democratic on a presidential level, it's extraordinarily volatile on a congressional level, frequently watching its House seats switch parties, and Shaheen is the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1974.  Brown is definitely the underdog, but in this environment this is a race that you should at least remember.

I don't really see any chances outside of the Top 10 for a race that will ultimately be "the seat."  Terri Lynn Land has run an abysmal race for the once open Senate seat in Michigan, and Rep. Gary Peters continues his oddly lucky streak to get a promotion and a hold for the Democrats.  Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes sank her campaign without answering the "did you vote for Obama?" question, assuring Mitch McConnell his spot as Republican (likely majority) leader.  And despite claims earlier in the year, states like Minnesota, Virginia, and Oregon never really became factors.  The above ten states are the ten states that will decide the Senate: Democrats need five and Republicans need six in order to take the majority.  What are your guesses as to where they land?