Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wish Me Luck!

You will get your next batch of Favorite Songs countdown this afternoon, but I'm giving a big presentation this morning so I didn't have the time to get to it to start the day (my nerves are a little bit shot-I hate public speaking).  Instead, since the US Open is coming up, I figured I'd put my two favorite champions here as inspiration!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Should Heidi Heitkamp Run for Governor or Senator?

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
If there is an official queen of The Many Rantings of John, it's probably not Meryl Streep or Audra McDonald or Shirley MacLaine, even though I find myself writing about them constantly (the king is clearly Darren Criss).  No, it would be Heidi Heitkamp, the junior United States Senator from the state of North Dakota who stunned the political world in 2012 by winning the Peace Garden State against all odds and expectations.  Heitkamp shows up on this blog constantly, partially because electoral surprises stagger me, partially because I like her personally, but mostly because she's an extremely rare breed in U.S. politics in the last five years: a red-state Blue Dog Democrat who won a major statewide election recently.  Thanks to the 2010 and 2014 Midterms, Heitkamp is one of only five Democratic senators who represent a state in the United States Senate that Mitt Romney won (the others are Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin).  Of the five, Heitkamp was the only person who was coming off of a political loss when she ran and won her seat, putting her in an even more interesting (and admittedly precarious) situation than the others.

All of this is to say that it is surprising that Heitkamp, whose relatively small profile on the national stage (most people across the country haven't heard of her), is about to make a major decision that could decide the fates of some major Democrats in the country like Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  This is because, with the retirement of Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in North Dakota, Heitkamp has arguably the best chance of her career to take an office she has coveted for decades: governor.  Dalrymple announced yesterday that he will retire rather than running for another term, leaving open the North Dakota statehouse for the first time in 16 years.  That election, in 2000, was the moment where Heitkamp's national star faded.  At the time she was the sitting Attorney General, just barely into her 40's, and up until October she was winning the election.  Then, after an admission that she had breast cancer, her lead to CEO John Hoeven (who now serves with her in the U.S. Senate) vanished, and she ended up losing the election by 10-points.  It was a pretty heartbreaking loss for Democrats that year, and one that still stings when you bring it up in certain corners of the Midwest.  Heitkamp clearly still covets the job, and has expressed her frustration more than once about the Senate and the pace at which it works (most people who served as both governor and senator tend to prefer the more central-command position of governor).

So why is it that I point out Clinton, Schumer, and Ginsburg up-top?  It's because Heitkamp's decision will almost certainly mean the Democrats are sacrificing her Senate seat.  Thanks to a recent law in the state, Heitkamp will not be able to appoint her successor, who will instead be decided in a special election in April.  Were she to run for the governor's mansion and win, there's no other Democrat in the state that remotely has the capability to run for the seat and win-she's it.  Her seat is particularly important because without it, the Democrats would have to pick up five Senate seats in 2016 to win back the Senate majority, and six if the Democrats don't have the White House.  That's rough math, and her leaving the position of senator would probably ensure Mitch McConnell stays in the majority leader position.  With that, he would be able to not only relegate Chuck Schumer's first-term as leader into the minority, but also be able to stop much of a hypothetical President Clinton's agenda, and most critically, any Supreme Court nominee.  Conversely, Heitkamp would stand in the way of a potential President Jeb Bush's choice to replace an aging liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer with an Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, thus giving the Supreme Court to the GOP for another few decades and putting at risk everything from gay marriage to abortion rights to the Voting Rights Act.

That might seem hyperbolic, but it's reality.  We live in an increasingly partisan environment, and it's not hard to see a very near day when a non-controversial Supreme Court nomination is decided entirely along party lines (it is almost there-look at Elena Kagan, a pretty innocuous nominee replacing a very liberal justice that very few Republicans crossed over on).  And it's worth noting that with the blue/red dynamic of states being weirdly 50/50 (despite having a clear advantage in the electoral college, thanks to a number of small GOP states like Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, the Republicans have an inherent, gerrymandered by history advantage in the Senate), seats like Heitkamp's become increasingly vital.  On DailyKOS this morning, I read the comments section who were saying, "who cares if she leaves the Senate-she's a DINO anyway?" but DINO's like Heitkamp are who decide the majority.  If the Republicans didn't have Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, Dean Heller, and Ron Johnson, four Obama-state Republicans, they wouldn't have the majority.  The ability of a party to find the likes of a Heidi Heitkamp to cross over is becoming more and more pivotal, which is why you can bet everyone from Hillary Clinton to Harry Reid will be calling her in the next 24 hours begging her to stay in the Senate, even while the North Dakota Democratic Party and Steve Bullock over at the DGA will be wooing her into the governor's race to improve Democrats paltry numbers there.

As for how she'll decide, I haven't the foggiest.  I imagine all things being equal she'd prefer to be governor, but pragmatism is important in these situations, because in reality she can't really run for both seats.  Logistically of course she can, and even if she were to run and lose the governor's race in 2016, if she turned around and ran for reelection in 2018 no one at the DSCC or in the state party would bat an eye and she'd have two cleared primaries, but she's already in an uphill race here, and having the Senate seat look like second place in 2018 would be political suicide.  I can find absolutely no example of someone running as a sitting senator for governor, losing, and then winning reelection to the Senate, much less someone who was in the minority party in their state.  It's a key reason I feel that Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill both turned down similar situations earlier this year in their states.  It's hard to tell which is going to be the easier race for Sen. Heitkamp-if Hillary Clinton is elected in 2016, it's likely that history will doom her (the opposite party of the White House usually does better in the Midterms), but running for governor in a state that the Republicans are certain to win in the race for the White House is also a rough decision as well.  It's also worth noting that governor/senator is as far as she gets on a national level.  Though she might, theoretically, be a Secretary of Agriculture or something in a future Democratic administration she's too conservative on environmental issues and gun control to ever be on a national ticket even if her biography and retail politicking skills would normally put her in contention.  All-in-all, I suspect that though she might have a slightly better time running for governor, reality will settle in that she has a better shot of national support in 2018 when her seat will decide control of the majority, and I'd probably advise her to skip the governor's race and go full-throttle for reelection, when she'll have the likes of Donnelly/McCaskill/Tester/Manchin in her corner to help shape a national agenda.  But as far as predictions-it's wait and see right now.  But trust that even though it's a tiny state, a lot of people in Washington have their eyes focused on Bismarck right now.

Top 200 Favorite Songs, Part 16

(If you're just tuning in, I'm doing a rundown of my Top 200 Favorite Songs-see the bottom of the page for previous entries and welcome!)

The first concert I ever went to was, unfortunately, technically, American Idol: Season 2.  However, the first concert I always tell people I went to since I don't really count the American Idol concert (it was more stage show/Pop-Tarts commercial than concert) was the Dixie Chicks.  I was actually considerably older than your average person when I went to my first concert; growing up in a small town, concerts were really more of something that you went to if you wanted to drive to a casino or to a giant rodeo field in your truck and wanted to live out of a tent for a few days, and it almost always involved a series of country music acts that I had heard of maybe one of the people at.  So the summer after my junior year of college, I managed to convince my mom and one of her friends to come down to the Twin Cities and attend the concert with me, as none of my friends were having the Dixie Chicks and they were my all-time favorite band, and still in many ways are.  Seeing them live was a thrill, and for a brief period of time after that I went kind of hog-wild in attending concerts.  Slowly but steadily I saw almost every major singer that I could find that I loved; Coldplay, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Tina Turner all soon followed, and while concerts slowly slipped back into the shadows once I realized that Broadway touring companies provided Playbills and were generally less expensive in my town, I still have so many fond memories of that concert, sitting there with my mom as the Dixie Chicks came out onstage and, albeit a bit later than most, I had that quintessential moment of cheering on a favorite band for the very first time.

50. "Wide Open Spaces," The Dixie Chicks (1998)

I was a fan from the beginning of the Natalie Maines era.  There was something so freeing about the songs on this album that didn't match the rest of the country music of that time, and I felt time-lifted out to the era where country music was played on prime-time television on broadcast networks.  Their songs always felt personal and light, but sometimes dreary, which is not an easy feat to master.

49. "All By Myself," Eric Carmen (1975)

Fun Fact About John: this is the very first song I ever bought on iTunes.  As a result I have listened to this song incessantly through the years (particularly since I bought like four songs initially and just kept playing them over-and-over).  Eric Carmen's ballad about "living alone, thinking of all the friends I've known" is one of those songs that you have to play when you're feeling sad and blue, and having one of those emo days and to pretend I don't have those sorts of days on the semi-regular would be foolishness, so I definitely can't deny this position.

48. "Midnight Train to Georgia," Gladys Knight & the Pips (1973)

On the opposite end of the scale, though, is Gladys Knight blasting the song I listen to when I am happy or want to rock out in my car/apartment.  Seriously-has there ever been a song that has been more fun to shout out to when it comes on the radio?  On my bucket list it actually said, amidst a sea of visiting foreign locales and getting married, "sing 'Midnight Train to Georgia' at a karaoke bar."  With two of my friends in-tow as my Pips, I was able to accomplish this a few years ago.

47. "Wild is the Wind," Nina Simone (1959)

The Anna Magnani-film version had Johnny Mathis singing the song (which was nominated for an Oscar), but with all due respect to Mr. Mathis, Ms. Simone's version is the quintessential one.  Soaring, elegant, and deeply-moving, this became in my opinion Nina's best recording-she found the devastating loneliness of living on the edge, something of course that she knew from experience.

46. "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke (1964)

It's hard to believe this song, perhaps the most significant of the American Civil Rights movement, started as a B-Side on one of Cooke's final records.  The song is profoundly moving, insisting that change was going to come, a story Cooke wanted to believe as he was denied spots in the hotels he would perform in, and it was a song he was so moved by personally that he only performed it live once.

45. "Stand By Me," Ben E. King (1961)

I have somehow never seen Rob Reiner's classic film of the same name (it's OVP-we'll get there), but man did I love this song growing up.  The wonderfully-etched power of King's voice, as if he was throwing it somewhere it felt so precise, makes what could have been something sappy feel inspiring, and it's one of those great stories of a song (how King almost didn't record it, but decided to on a whim).

44. "Lost Cause," Beck (2002)

Beck was a singer growing up that I just didn't get-what was the point of this pretty but grungy man whose music didn't seem to follow any sort of genre?  And yet as an adult I simply cannot get enough-I love the way that his voice seems to almost mimic the instruments behind him, and the way that he chooses unusual subjects, like dismissing his own worthiness of love, for the world of rock music like in "Lost Cause."

43. "The Scientist," Coldplay (2002)

The only modern music act that can remotely compete for my love in comparison to the Dixie Chicks is Coldplay.  I own every album (seriously-every one), and would just play their music alone in my college dorm over-and-over again.  This was what first bonded me to one of my best friends in college, in fact (we realized we were friends when we signed up for free Coldplay tickets at the same time), and as a result all of these songs make me go back to that time, "back to the stars."

42. "Me and Bobby McGee," Janis Joplin (1971)

It's hard to imagine the original version of this song was sung by Roger Miller.  Hitting Number One after her untimely death, Joplin's ode to a "busted flat in Baton Rouge" starts out simple and then just keeps getting more frenetic, until we are awash in the Pearl's raw vocal energy.  A powerhouse performer, this is the song that I eternally think of when I am reminded of her.

41. "Nutbush City Limits," Tina Turner (1973)

I remember seeing Tina Turner in concert, and thinking that she was going to skip this song, and I was DEVASTATED, as it was roughly 50% of the reason that I got floor seats.  Thankfully the encore was Tina strutting out on a gigantic crane to this number, running up and down it in high heels, saying "one more time" to the audience gleefully knowing we'd just keep going with it-she stretched the song out for seven minutes, and honestly-I'd have been fine if I was still there saying "one more time" years later.

And there we have it-the next set of ten.  Do you have any fond memories from The Dixie Chicks?  What was your first concert?  And any favorite songs of this crop?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

If you've missed any of the past installments, go ahead and click: Part 1234567891011121314, 15

Monday, August 24, 2015

OVP: Director (2008)

OVP: Best Director (2008)

The Nominees Were...

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus van Sant, Milk

My Thoughts: Let's finish up this Slumdog-Benjamin train, shall we?  With just two more categories to go before we call a wrap on 2008, the Academy gave us an oddly duplicated year in terms of Oscar races.  It's worth noting that not only did blockbuster The Dark Knight not make this list, but that the Best Director lineup mirrored the Best Picture one-matching up completely for the first time since 2005 (it's actually pretty rare-before that it hadn't happened since 1981).  As a result a lot of the talking points we get to here may be a little bit duplicated in Best Picture, though that doesn't necessarily guarantee the same winner (see past contests for proof).

We're going to start out with Ron Howard, because his very recognizable face up-top amidst a sea of guys who are admittedly well-known but weren't on two iconic television sitcoms, is sticking out to me.  Howard's nominations for Frost/Nixon weren't exactly surprising at the time, but in hindsight considering the way that his film about the 37th president has sort of disappeared from public consciousness they seem like an easy target for eye-rolling.  The reality is that Howard, much like the film, does his best work re-creating the tapes themselves.  The interviews are riveting stuff, particularly if you aren't familiar with the famous Frost/Nixon debates, but the rest of the film falls short.  There's a moment late in the film when Frank Langella, acting to the rafters, calls Michael Sheen's Frost in something of a psychotic stupor but it feels inauthentic because it's largely out-of-nowhere and borrows more from other depictions of Nixon than the one we have encountered.  I liked the way that Howard keeps focused on Nixon in tight close-up (we all know the stories about how he lost his 1960 debate, and the paranoid president was more than aware of such things at the time), but the rest of the film seems too traditionally-structured and shot to merit an Oscar inclusion.

Danny Boyle's directorial habits have always bugged the crap out of me, to be honest.  I get that he has a vision, and occasionally it's a creative one, but it always seems so jumbled.  There's occasionally great beauty in the film Slumdog Millionaire, particularly during the first flashback when we see the streets of this impoverished nation, but the film is too traditional later in the film, frequently relying on cliches and overusing its Who Wants to Be a Millionaire motif.  I also feel like too many of the characters end up being 2-dimensional, particularly Freida Pinto's girlfriend role, and that Boyle allows his actors to just stay at a surface-level rather than expanding their understanding of what is going on in the film.  That creates a shallower experience for the audience.

I am a sucker for Stephen Daldry and his intense, dramatic flourishes onscreen.  I love the way that he creates a sense of permanence onscreen.  His best examples of this are The Hours, where every decision over a short period of time has a devastating and damning consequence and so you feel the need to hone in on every moment, but The Reader does this remarkably well also.  The short affair, briefly framed and shot in close, urgent, "is-this-the-end" shots creates a stamina to the rest of the picture-how will this end for these characters?  It helps that he has world-class actors like Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes driving this love story, and admittedly the first-half is better framed than the second-half, but even the second-half he pushes the actors and the story in ways unexpected.  I am still driven by the fact that Lena Olin and Ralph Fiennes play characters who have rehearsed their parts for so many years, and yet are still eager to see what will take place even though they know what they'll say-it's a wonderfully-shot film and one that I loved, critics be damned there.

The other film I latched onto was of course Milk, directed by Gus van Sant.  Here we have a director known for avant garde but also for creating a memorable but relatively traditional work (Good Will Hunting), and he finds ways to combine the two.  The film isn't neutered in terms of its sexuality and in the ways it portrays gay characters.  There's a reason I gave it Best Editing-it kept in moments that other directors would have kept out like Joseph Cross getting to third base with Emile Hirsch in a dark room or the gay campaign team drooling over the pizza delivery guy.  These sorts of touches add to the authenticity that van Sant is trying to capture, but it also lends itself well to the boldness of Harvey as a character-he's someone that doesn't back away from saying things that might make people uncomfortable, even as he stakes out a place for himself in the world of straight America.

The final nomination is for David Fincher.  Fincher, quite frankly, is my favorite director of this bunch, but David Fincher is also a director that can create mood in the way that Otto Preminger created mood in Laura, and is not someone that's great at comedy or romance, but instead at heightened tensions.  The reality is that in a movie like Se7en or Zodiac or The Social Network (undoubtedly his three finest films) you have the greatest directorial moments when we are moving into unknown territory, but Benjamin Button just slugs along, with us knowing that Benjamin and Daisy won't have a particularly happy ending, but probably a pretty sweet one (which is what occurs).  The only moments where his directorial eye is really clear and clever is late in the film, when he's finding Daisy losing her youthful upper-hand, particularly when she indulges in a much younger-looking Benjamin.  These moments betray the slightest of bitterness and as a result we get the Fincher we love, but I'll admit that those moments are few-and-far between in this a-characteristic film.

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).  As a result, one generally suspects uniformity, though each group put its own little stamp on the conversation.  For starters, the Globes skipped Gus van Sant in favor of Sam Mendes, who directed Revolutionary Road (Danny Boyle won).  The DGA Awards, usually the best predictor for this category, skipped Stephen Daldry, in this case picking Christopher Nolan for one of his three DGA nominations without a corresponding Best Director nomination (a feat equaled only by Rob Reiner), while honoring Danny Boyle (didn't everyone?).  Finally the BAFTA's skipped Gus van Sant as well, and while they also honored Danny Boyle they went with Clint Eastwood for Changeling.  I know the popular sentiment in the years since is that Nolan was just south of a nomination at the time, but considering that it didn't score in either of the big categories and we don't have the usual 4/5 Best Picture split, I wonder if perhaps Revolutionary Road/Clint Eastwood may have been just as plausible for the sixth places in the top two categories, considering the one's positioned as a "woman's picture" (usually they get Best Picture without Director), while Eastwood was enjoying his last big year of success with the Oscars until his strange hiatus that would last even when he would get nominated for American Sniper (he still missed in Best Director, arguably costing the film a Best Picture or Best Actor surprise trophy).
Directors I Would Have Nominated: I surely would have included Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which is a marvelously shot and contained black comedy, along with Andrew Stanton's epic WALL-E.  Christopher Nolan after all of these years I'm not sure on-arguably the best contained scenes in The Dark Knight are also the best of the year (the bold risk of opening the film on high-alert as we zoom into a bank robbery, as if we're still watching a trailer, is perfection), so I would pick him but subbing he or maybe one of the nominated fellas for Arnaud Desplechin's family drama A Christmas Tale wouldn't be unforgivable.
Oscar’s Choice: Like every precursor, Danny Boyle took home the Oscar over Fincher and Daldry, in roughly that order.
My Choice: I'm picking van Sant over Daldry, a more singular achievement and one that caters more to the subject at hand.  In third is Fincher, followed by Howard and then Boyle.

Those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Are you with me in favor of van Sant or were you all about that Boyle?  Does anyone else also secretly (or not so secretly after nineteen write-ups) love The Reader?  And Eastwood, Nolan, or Mendes-who was the sixth place finisher?

Past Best Director Contests: 2009201020112012, 2013

Top 200 Favorite Songs, Part 15

(If you're just tuning in, I'm doing a rundown of my Top 200 Favorite Songs-see the bottom of the page for previous entries and welcome!)

I have long been someone defined by their "favorites."  I categorize, I sort, I rank, and I have done it for as long as I can remember.  While I don't have every list I've ever made, there is probably only one person who has been present on every iteration of my favorite actors list since I started making them, and that is Angela Lansbury.  There is video of me at the age of about four, in fact, hurriedly running over to the TV when Murder, She Wrote was on.  I was obsessed, and still am, quite frankly (I am giddy whenever there's a marathon on television, and I slowly have been buying every season on DVD).  Lansbury, though, wasn't just Jessica Fletcher to me-she was also the star of a handful of my most beloved movies.  Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (anyone know if they ever got this one on DVD?), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and most importantly my favorite Disney movie Beauty and the Beast.  Her wonderfully wry Mrs. Potts was just perfect to me-I couldn't get enough of her bouncy British humor, and I was stunned when I learned that she not only could sing, but could do so enchantingly.  Hearing her carry over as Belle and Beast swooped across a magical French ballroom, I was breathless.  As I got older I learned that she was an accomplished actress, albeit one that the movies had largely forgotten save for a few classic parts (particularly Mrs. John Iselin, for which she would have won that Oscar, Patty Duke be damned), and instead was a favorite more of the Broadway stage.  Seeing her in-person when she did Gore Vidal's The Best Man was a thrill of a lifetime, and though I didn't get to meet her (she didn't do the stage door that night, sadly), being that close to my childhood icon was something that even that four-year-old couldn't have dreamt up.  I may make lists, but Angela Lansbury is always in a class by herself.

60. "Rhiannon," Fleetwood Mac (1975)

No one in the world has a voice like Stevie Nicks.  Such confidence, such control-I love the way that she sings that first line as if she's been singing the song for several minutes, almost as if she's closing the song.  Her voice has never aged, and she still stays magic (I'm aware that the above is not the traditional performance from the album, but it's Stevie Nicks live-your world is going to be rocked regardless).

59. "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley (2006)

Weirdly the only song on this list where the title is listed twice (the other being Patsy Cline-if you didn't know that, catch up below).  The manic in Cee-Lo Green's voice in this song is absolutely spellbinding, there's something just a little off in it that makes it recall something that Grace Slick might have sang in her heyday.  Green may not have had to go "crazy" to be a genius, but I'm glad he went "Crazy."

58. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Roberta Flack (1972)

I did a bit of graduating in my taste with this song.  I first heard it when it was covered by Leona Lewis, and I was blown away at the haunting and terribly romantic lyrics.  However, once I heard Flack tackle it, stripping it Lewis' gloss and filling it full of feeling, I realized that a singer who felt their music was incredibly tangible, and always preferable.  It may have ruined my taste for singing competition shows, but it made moments in the dark playing old records that much more enchanting.

57. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," Willie Nelson (1975)

The song that transformed Willie Nelson from being a songwriter to one of the biggest singers in country music, "Blue Eyes Crying in My Rain" will eternally be for me a song I listened to in a casino parking lot, listening to Willie do it at the close of his concert.  Willie Nelson concerts get quite the selection of attendees, but they all go hush when he starts in on this pitch-perfect country ballad.

56. "As Time Goes By," Dooley Wilson (1942)

We've profiled a lot of different songs from my favorite movies in these rundowns, but this one is notable of course for being my favorite movie, full stop.  Casablanca actually has a number of memorable musical moments, but none is quite the same as Dooley Wilson crooning "a kiss is still a kiss."

55. "Beauty and the Beast," Angela Lansbury (1991)

Take a lesson here filmmakers-you don't have to hire the hottest pop act on the charts to create something iconic and memorable-instead, picking an aging movie star who can put emotion, heart, and desperate soul into her work is almost certainly the better way to go.  Lansbury's voice reveals not only the romance in front of us, but universal love itself.

54. "Downtown Train," Everything But the Girl (1990)

Yes, the song by Rod Stewart, but you've never heard the song quite like this.  The first time I heard this version, I kept thinking of standing on a subway platform late at night, coming home from work.  I was typically tired, typically a little nervous about the walk home in the dark (I lived in the Bronx people), but mostly I was just enamored by the city-there's a magic when all of the stress sort of lifts in New York and you just get to be a part of the sound.  That's what this song means to me.

53. "Moon River," Henry Mancini (1961)

My brother and I have a cavalcade of private jokes, but probably toward the top of the list is a line we got from the AFI 100 Years series when someone (I believe it was Jennifer Love Hewitt), said "love isn't love unless you're kissing in the rain, with an orange cat."  That line has always made us laugh, but it is a testament to Ms. Hewitt's taste that it's true-love has never been quite as romantic as Breakfast at Tiffany's, and in particular Henry Mancini's search for a "huckleberry friend."

52. "Imagine," John Lennon (1971)

Written in the wake of the Beatles breakup, John Lennon became a voice of a generation with this call to peace.  Decades later, it's impossible to believe such a song exists and was such a monumental hit.  Simple, but profound, courting controversy ("imagine no religion" is something no one would be able to get away with on the radio airwaves today, though Hozier recently tested that theory), the song is the quintessential protest song, but oddly it does that by inviting us all to live as one.

51. "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want," The Smiths (1984)

Morrissey may have become as controversial as swearing in some sects of British culture, but his work in The Smiths lives eternally up to the hype.  I don't care if it's hipster cliche-this is one of my all-time favorite bands, and this song, one of the most personal in their discography, is spellbinding in its briefness and honesty.  Seriously-watch the above performance if you don't get what I'm talking about.

And there we have it-the Top 50 begins tomorrow, but before then have we finally got some of your favorites, or are you holding out for a specific tune still?  What are your memories of Dame Angela Lansbury?  Share in the comments!

If you've missed any of the past installments, go ahead and click: Part 123456789101112, 13, 14

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Gift (2015)

Film: The Gift (2015)
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Director: Joel Edgerton
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I have a few rules about going to the movies that I try really hard not to break, at least in terms of what movies I end up seeing.  Part of those rules is that I have an internal list of about 4-5 actors whose films I don't see on principle.  Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and in particular Jason Bateman I keep making myself the same promise over and over again that I will never endure one of their movies again (the other two I generally tend to avoid, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, made watching the second season of True Detective impossible even if it starred Colin Farrell, an actor I see in pretty much everything).  However, even with actors this run-of-the-mill, they're too big of stars not to have an intriguing costar (like Helen Mirren) or be in a surprisingly well-reviewed film (like The Gift) or be in a film that your aunt and grandmother really want to see (there had to be a reason I saw The Age of Adaline, which I will admit was not the travesty I thought it would be).  Those great reviews brought me to The Gift, which is batting a shockingly strong 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and so I am venturing into Bateman territory again against my better judgment.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is one of those movies that has a lot of interesting intentions and is well-crafted, but ultimately doesn't go anywhere and doesn't really give us any proper horror.  The first half of the film, in my opinion, was dreadful to the point where I thought about walking out and reading the ending of the film on Wikipedia to see what I was about to be in-store for, quite frankly (I've only done that once before in a film, but that was because the tension was getting too much for me in Compliance and I needed to figure out if it was going to go to the frightening place it was about to go, which of course it did...this walkout felt a little more driven by the summer cold I've been trying to shake to no avail and wishing I was watching a better movie under an afghan on my couch).  The film is all bumps and "why is he so weird?" in the way it approaches its mood.  We have this obscenely wealthy couple Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall), who live one of those upper-class lifestyles that only exist in movies where there are koi ponds and windows for days, and the wife just gets to jog and randomly work on her computer all day, while the husband seems to just glad-hand at the office.  And then we have this clear juxtaposition, an old high school-classmate of Simon's named Gordo (Edgerton), whom he doesn't really remember all that well but who seems desperately lonely and sad all the time, frequently finding reasons to send them beautiful gifts and lovely cards but not having a romantic relationship, career, or home of comparable value.

The reality about the first half of the movie is that Gordo genuinely seems really nice, and Simon seems like a jerk from the beginning so some of the later twists don't seem that surprising.  Were it not for the creepy music and the abruptness of finding presents at the door that a jump scare elicits, Gordo seems like a kind person, and this is one of a few times in the movie where Edgerton's direction and screenplay feel a little bit misused.  From the all-too-telling trailer (I read on a different blog recently that teasers are always better than trailers, and I'm fully onboard going forward with just having teasers since The Gift's trailer gives away all but the last fifteen minutes of the movie) we know that Gordo isn't what he seems, but the more interesting thing about him is-what if he is?  As the film progresses we get the reality that Simon is, in fact, a true villain and not just a cartoon-y one you see in the cinema.  He's the sort of bully that would make up a rumor about Gordo being gay and being molested in high school just because he could, and the sort of person who would destroy another man who has the gaul to apply for the same job as him.

Simon is supposedly the bad guy, which makes the final fifteen minutes all the more ridiculous.  At this point, Simon's career and wife gone from him, we get into the reality that Gordo has in fact been gaslighting his wife (he has a key to their home), been spying on them at night (though haven't these people heard of curtains?), and that he broke into the house, and he leaves the question mark over whether Robyn was raped by Gordo and might be the father of her child.  The film ends with Simon now gone from his wife and in tears over his shattered existence, and Gordo walking away, taking down his sling showing that he wasn't injured after all.

This ending would work but for two reasons.  One, it's the less-interesting answer to the entire question-we get no sense as to Gordo's motives or his psyche.  Quite frankly, Gordo is completely unknown in his current skin-we genuinely learn nothing about him and instead just stick to the married couple.  We only know a couple of truths about the man, which would be cool and sneaky (the way we waste almost no time on the people we consider beneath us), except that there's a gigantic background check file on the man sitting in Jason Bateman's possession for most of the film, and Rebecca Hall has read it too.  This shows that the audience is the only one left in the dark, and that's not fair or smart, it's just lazy writing.  Robyn, Simon, and the audience is dying to get to know Gordo more so the dismissed poor guy angle doesn't work, and yet the director covers it up because it makes it more titillating toward the end of the film.  That's pretty damn cheap if you ask me.

Secondly, without this sense of identity we don't get a proper picture as to what his goal was-was it just to destroy Simon all-along or was it just after he was rejected that it happened?  The recording that we get of Simon disparaging him is before Simon asks him to leave the couple be, and if it is the case that he just wants to exact revenge on Simon later in the film, why would he spend so much time torturing his poor wife, who was kind to him the entire film.  Rebecca Hall is giving the best performance of the three (and is miles-away the best actor of the trio), but her character becomes "victim" pretty damn fast in the final moments of the film, becoming a mere pawn for the two main characters to play against each other.  It's not a particularly forward-looking feminist movie, even if you subtract the distasteful way the film hints that Robyn may have been raped which feels tagged-on and unnecessary.

All-in-all, I get why this got the good reviews that it did-it's the sort of film that elicits discussion and perhaps it shows a director that might have an interesting perspective behind the camera (it's a first effort, and there's a tautness to the lensing of scenes that should be admired), but overall I left particularly underwhelmed and wishing that I had stuck with my no-Bateman rule.  What were your thoughts if you've seen The Gift?  Are you in the pro-or-con camp?  Share in the comments!

100 Things I Love Most About the Movies

Considering that I did a rant on Friday and a link round-up on Saturday, I figured it was highly appropriate for me to continue my streak of doing what I say I'm going to do on the day I say I'm going to do it by having a GTKY Sunday article!  Recently Nathaniel over at the Film Experience (one of my favorite blogs) wrote an article about the 100 Things He Loved Most at the Movies after Allyson over at The Best Picture Project wrote a similarly-themed article.  I am enamored with this idea, and so I figured I would do the same, largely stream-of-consciousness (these are not in order, not definitive, are largely what first came to my head in a swirl of movie magic-love, and not all-inclusive, but they should give a bit of an indication of my adoration of the cinema).  Without further adieu:

1. Movie marquees-it's the world's greatest menu board.
2. Medium popcorn, M&M's, and a bottled-water, aka the greatest meal of the week.
3. That humming sound when the projector switches from the trailer to the actual movie.
4. The American Film Institute specials-the way that I learned about the cinema for the first time.
5. Oscar nomination morning
6. The Oscars themselves.
7. The scene where Ilsa talks to Sam about playing it "for old times sake."
8. Barbara Stanwyck in sunglasses.
9. Marlon Brando's arms in A Streetcar Named Desire
10. The costumes in Ran
11. Marilyn Monroe in a pink dress in Gentleman Prefer Blondes
12. Jeff Bridges downward gaze
13. Lauren Bacall's eyes
14. Michael Fassbender's neck
15. Trying to figure out what Bill Murray whispers in Scarlett Johansson's ears.
16. "Oh Jerry, let's not ask for the moon-we have the stars."
17. That moment when a new acquaintance realizes that I love movies not in the way normal people love movies.
18. The look on someone's face when they are describing their favorite movie memory...usually after I have to beg them to talk and then they cannot stop.
19. Jesse & Celine-sunrise, sunset, midnight.
20. "I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers."
21. The barn-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
22. Sean Connery shooing the birds in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
23. The dance scene in Waterloo Bridge
24. The train scene in The Hours
25. Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter
26. Cate Blanchett's narration in Lord of the Rings
27. The dinosaurs in The Tree of Life
28. The scene in the woods in The Conformist
29. The title scene of Celine & Julie Go Boating
30. "You're wearing the thimble"
31. A guy you like taking your hand for the first time in a darkened movie theater.
32. "Open the pod bay doors Hal"
33. Janet Gaynor in Sunrise
34. The opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil...really all tracking shots
35. "Tradition!"
36. "John Doe has the upper hand"
37. The library in Beauty and the Beast
38. Every time I see the words "Composed by John Williams"
39. Zuzu Petals
40. When people clap sporadically at the end of a movie
41. "I wish I knew how to quit you"
42. Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain
43. "The Ludlows" theme from Legends of the Fall
44. When Jill comes home in Once Upon a Time in the West
45. The Annie Hall lobsters
46. Teaser trailers
47. "Hero" in Boyhood
48. The first trip to Neverland in Peter Pan (the 2003 version)
49. Lois Smith's scene in Minority Report
50. "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown"
51. Deborah Kerr's giant skirt in The King and I
52. Gloria Grahame in Crossfire
53. The moment of "I feel so in-the-moment and alive" every time I saw Titanic on the big screen as a teenager...and as an adult.
54. Orson Welles furiously clapping in Citizen Kane.
55. "Dr. Grant, my dear Dr. Sattler, welcome to Jurassic Park."
56. Offenbach in Life is Beautiful
57. "Edelweiss"
58. Rooftop fighting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
59. The scene in the woods in House of Flying Daggers
60. Barbra Streisand adjusting Robert Redford's hair in The Way We Were
61. Kissing in the rain...with an orange cat.
62. Nat King Cole singing "Starlight" in Sleepless in Seattle
63. The way that Maggie Smith says "succession of the Stuarts" in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
64. The walk down the stairs in Children of Men
65. Gregory Peck's ears
66. Shirley MacLaine's legs
67. Meryl Streep on the sea wall in The French Lieutenant's Woman
68. Frederick A. Young
69. The lights outside the Edina Landmark
70. "I'm Easy"
71. Kim Novak's hair in Vertigo
72. "I am big, it's the pictures that got small"
73. "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night"
74. The wood-chopping scene in Shane
75. John Wayne in a doorway in The Searchers
76. The way that my mom cries every time we watch Hoosiers together
77. My dad taking me to my first R-rated movie (Traffic)
78. The way that I caught my grandfather crying during Apollo 13
79. My brother and my annual awards shows
80. The reunion scene in White Fang
81. The title scene in Blow-Up
82. Kelly MacDonald's voice
83. The Pixar lamp
84. Faye Dunaway reading the "tale of Bonnie and Clyde"
85. Gene Tierney in Laura
86. Peter O'Toole blowing up the train
87. Audrey Hepburn's press conference in Roman Holiday
88. Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story
89. Rouge City
90. Hogwarts
91. The words "Directed by Ingmar Bergman" in the opening credits
92. Brad Pitt, shirtless, in Thelma & Louise
93. "I had a farm in Africa"
94. The crispness of the night air after you've left a Saturday evening movie
95. The way that the weekend feels extra long when you see a movie on a Thursday night.
96. The Godfather Waltz
97. Lampwick's transformation
98. Kate Hepburn's lilt
99. Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine by the window in Rebecca
100. "If I have to lie, cheat, steal, or kill, as God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

Those are mine (as of this moment)-what are yours?  Share yours in the comments (or share a link to your list on a different blog and I'll include it here!).  And make sure to check out Allyson and Nathaniel's links and blogs up-top: they're awesome too!!!!