Thursday, February 26, 2015

State of the Senate: The Very Happy DSCC

Attorney General Kamala Harris (D-CA)
The media has taken it upon themselves to discuss in negative terms the rather uneventful Democratic Primary for President, and I have to admit that in part they're right.  I think it is ludicrous that Hillary is being selfish enough to entertain waiting until July, letting the Republicans gain all of the press for months on end while the Democrats sit around wondering if they have a date to the prom.  However, it's worth noting at this point that Sec. Clinton (who is almost certain to run) seems to be having a really interesting effect on DSCC recruitment.  With the potential that Hillary Clinton could in fact build on an historic coalition (the blue-collar DLC Democrats that have soured a bit on President Obama but loved her husband combined with the youth/minority vote that propelled Barack Obama to two terms in office along with a theoretically larger-than-usual number of women getting to the polls for the first female presidential candidate) Democrats seem to be coming out of the woodwork to run for the Senate.

Really Jon Tester couldn't be asking for a better turnout at the moment when it comes to winning Senate races.  So far it seems like Barbara Boxer is the only Democrat that is likely to be retiring in 2016 (Barbara Mikulski and Harry Reid both may, but the former is a blue-state stronghold and the latter we might actually be better off with former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto taking Reid's place) and in California it seems like basically everyone has rolled out the carpet for Kamala Harris to stroll to this Senate seat.  The Republicans have admittedly kept most of their retirements at bay (though it still seems possible that Chuck Grassley or John McCain will skip running).  However, the Democrats have already started lining up recruits.

It appears exceedingly likely, for example, that former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland will take the plunge and run against Sen. Rob Portman, a major coup for the DSCC as Strickland has a wealth of experience and national networks, and this was the Obama state where the Democratic bench was basically absent, so getting a former governor who has run two close statewide campaigns is a coup.  Speaking of national figures with statewide experience, it appears highly likely that Sen. Russ Feingold will seek a rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, one of the rare races where the challenger probably starts out in the lead considering Feingold's history statewide and Johnson's approval ratings (and the fact that Hillary Clinton is likely to win the blue state).  And it seems like Rep. Tammy Duckworth is starting to emerge as a frontrunner against Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk in a must-win seat for the Democrats (it's the bluest state held by a Republican in the Senate and also Hillary Clinton's home state).

Democrats haven't quite landed some other key candidates, but they're catching some lucky breaks.  In New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan appears to be on the fence about running for the Senate, but this is clearly a major ambition of hers and the fact that the NRSC is already going after her is telling.  Democrats seem to be working to recruit either former Sen. Kay Hagan or State Treasurer Janet Cowell in North Carolina, and considering the national push that the Tar Heel State will surely see in 2016, it's very likely one of these two women make the entrance into the race.   In Florida Democrats may have had a week's worth of good luck with it appearing more than likely that Marco Rubio will skip reelection in Florida to run for president, therefore opening up a seat in the Sunshine State when Rubio would have been a far tougher battle.  It also appears that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a candidate that would be toxic in the general but very strong in the primary, could be embroiled in a scandal that will make the more palatable Rep. Patrick Murphy the nominee.

Sec. of State Jason Kander (D-MO)
Other Democrats appear interested in states that Mitt Romney won but could be competitive with the right candidates.  In Missouri the DSCC got the best candidate possible in Secretary of State Jason Kander (it's worth noting that as recently as a few years ago the state swung regularly in presidential races and has voted for a Democrat statewide multiple times in the past decade, even if it's a McCain/Romney state).  In Arizona Rep. Krysten Sinema is clearly interested in the seat, but seems to be figuring out whom her Republican opponent will be.  Hell, even in ruby red South Dakota it appears the Democrats may have a blue chip recruit, as soon-to-be-former US Attorney Brendan Johnson may make a run at the Senate (he may also go for the House seat, but either way this would be a big win for Washington Democrats).

Not everything is admittedly sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows (RIP Lesley Gore) for the Democrats, of course.  It appears that the DSCC and Pennsylvania Democrats are less-than-enthused about a rematch between Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Joe Sestak.  As I mentioned above, Harry Reid is running for reelection in a seat the Democrats might just wish was open (as Reid could have a Chuck Robb-sort of vibe in 2016).  And it's worth noting that neither Maggie Hassan, Kay Hagan, nor Patrick Murphy have actually entered the race.  However, the DSCC has to be feeling pretty peachy right now about the field that they're positioning-if Hillary Clinton runs and wins in 2016, the Senate Democrats are ready to take advantage of that victory.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

If I Were Producer of the Oscars...

Every year, like clockwork, we all have to put up with Monday morning quarterbacking about what went wrong with the ceremony, and it's literally the same complaints every single year.  Too long.  Not funny enough.  Not edgy enough.  Too edgy.  It's all the same sort of garbage, and many times it falls at the feet of the host.  Seriously-being an Oscar host has to be the most thankless job in the country outside of Speaker of the House.  You can never seem to please anyone.

And yet, it doesn't have to be this way.  Let's be honest here-there have been, particularly in the 1990's, some really great Oscar ceremonies.  Shows like Billy Crystal's 1996 and 1997 ceremonies, Whoopi Goldberg's 1995 performance, Steve Martin's first shot at it-these are all iconic triumphs of the Oscars.  So what was different then, and how do we bridge toward that greatness while ensuring that we still have a modern theme that doesn't alienate too many people?  Below I give ten suggestions that would greatly help out the Academy Awards' producers in the future.

1. Stop Trying to Please Everybody

Here's your first problem-you can't please everyone, and you shouldn't try to do so.  Trying to please everyone is part of the reason why we are struggling at the movies-we create tentpoles that all are identical and that makes everything insanely boring.  You want to know why American Sniper is insanely popular?  Because it's a film with an identity that isn't like anything else that came out in the past year.  Its quality may be questionable to some, but it knows its audience and it is catering hard toward it.

So don't be the Tony Awards, don't be the VMA's, don't be some Twitter-friendly hashtag show.  Take a lesson from how much people hate cable news and love the Olympics-the former is focused on creating a now, now, now, while the latter is about a slow build to something magical.  There's a lot of magical things that can happen when you put our love for the movies into an awards show for three hours.  So don't struggle to try and create something that trends on Twitter-if it's a good show, it'll trend without prodding.

2. Hire a Comedian to Host

I think people got confused when Hugh Jackman received raves a few years back after some lackluster work from Chris Rock and Jon Stewart and thought that we needed more song-and-dance performers.  This resulted in the energetic Anne Hathaway, the smug Seth MacFarlane, and the lackluster Neil Patrick Harris.  The reality is that you need a professional comedian, someone who can read a room and knows where the line is and toys with it, but doesn't cross it.  This is partially why everyone loved Ellen last year (Caveat: I am aware that everyone is a wide term and that in the catacombs of the internet you can find someone to disagree with pretty much everyone, but the consensus was pretty positive) and why Amy/Tina have been such a hit at the Globes-they know how to make the people in the room laugh, and as a result make the people at home laugh.  So hire a comedian, maybe someone like Jimmy Kimmel or Maya Rudolph or Kate McKinnon to take the reigns of the show.  They'll keep the monologue crisp, and then essentially hand it over to the presenters.

3. Mix It Up with the Presenters

Which brings me to the presenters.  If there was a major miss this year in the energy it was that in a quest to make the show snappier we skipped any sort of funny.  We had funny people presenting: Kevin Hart, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pratt, but either they were hindered with ridiculous patter or they were just asked to read some cue cards.  So find people who can actually remember some lines (hell, throw out the damn teleprompter-they're actors who can actually remember a script, at least in theory) or people who can create great moments at the podium.  Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Kristin Wiig, or newer comedians like Seth Rogen or Rebel Wilson-these are who should be interspersed throughout the ceremony to keep things humming when you're presenting Best Sound Mixing or Documentary Short Subject.

4. Stop the Spoilers

Speaking of presenters, for those special moments when you want to wow the audience, stop leaking that they're about to happen before the ceremony.  Kim Novak's presentation would have been way cooler (and less awkward) had we not known she was going to show up.  So don't tell us which movie stars and screen legends are going to be coming out beforehand-keep them a surprise that you have to tune in to see (I have never understood the appeal of releasing the list of the presenters and performers beforehand).  This goes doubly for the musical numbers-keep it a damn secret. You're filmmakers who are CONSTANTLY complaining about the trailer giving away too much of the movie-try to change up the system by creating some suspense.

And then actually create some moments.  I still think they missed the boat by, say, not having Harry Belafonte introduce the "Glory" number or not having Julie Andrews present Best Picture.  And there are SO many classic movie stars who could probably use a $160k gift basket-why not give them a ring and bring people like Ellen Burstyn, Warren Beatty, Diahann Carroll, Cher, or Sidney Poitier out to the stage?  Reunite classic film duos like Nicholson/Dunaway, Streisand/Redford, or Keaton/Pacino.  This is a fine balance to the necessary modern presenters like Ansel Elgort and Dakota Johnson, the new faces of Hollywood.  Hell, if you started padding the lineup a bit with some Old Hollywood showing up some of new Hollywood (who seem to consistently skip the ceremony when they aren't nominated or pimping a picture) might show up.  It's a little sad that major 2014 Box Office draws like Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Lawrence, and Melissa McCarthy all skipped out on the ceremony.

5. Bring Back Hosts

Part of what the problem with the Oscars is that we get a new, different show every year.  You don't recreate the Olympics or the Super Bowls or the Tony Awards or New Year's Eve each year, so why do we feel the need to give the Oscars a facelift every year?  Perhaps the best way to do that is to have hosts that repeat.  Back in the day it was more a question of Steve, Whoopi, or Billy?  Johnny or Bob?  Who would show up each year was a giant question mark, but you knew you were in for a good show regardless.  You could do that again-I suspect Ellen Degeneres would be more than willing to show up again next year, and we might see the likes of Maya Rudolph or Jimmy Kimmel come up more often if you had a rotation of artists rather than just a new experiment every single year.  For a town that makes most of its money on sequels, it weirdly doesn't see their value when it comes to the Oscars.

6. But Make it About the Stars

Really, the job of the host is to get everyone into a good mood, and then it's time to step back and let the magic happen.  The best moments at the Oscars are always seeing the stars in their natural habitat-we get a peak into the real life unscripted world of Cate Blanchett and Will Smith-all of those people we read about in tabloids and watch on the big screen and fantasize about and hero-worship and are enchanted by with a giant tub of popcorn in our laps.  That's the fun of the Oscars, and it's true every year.  It's the reason the Ellen selfie was such a hit.  It's the reason that the Meryl/J Lo gif was instantly trending.  We want to see stars, lots of them, and so audience bits, trying to make specific stars laugh from the podium, this is what makes the Oscars such a fun show.

7. Cut the Musical Numbers

I don't give a rat's behind if the show runs long, as long as it's good, and neither does anyone else.  We may have work in the morning, but if the show is a great ride no one really cares, they just are tired the next day.  So I will never advocate for cutting a category or for having shorter speeches, since that gets back to the core of honoring filmmakers.  However there's really no need for the non-Original Song musical numbers.  Unless the number is comedic and short (think the Jack Black/Will Ferrell numbers of yore), it's not necessary unless it's competing for an Oscar that evening.  The Lady Gaga numbers, the opening number that has nothing to do with the specific films nominated that year, and the In Memoriam numbers all can go and shed fifteen minutes off this sucker, giving us more time for...

8. Celebrating the Nominees (especially the tech categories)

Film is a visual medium, so utilize that.  There's absolutely no reason why we can't see a series of fashions from the current years nominated costumes (hell-put the host in them) or have the presenters wandering through a house of the year's nominated production designs or have a musical ode to the nominated scores.  You can even find something new to say with the actors that are nominated.  How cool would it be to have a series of drama students talking about how the five nominated Best Actresses inspired their careers?  Or have the nominated actors themselves discuss why they love to act?  Taking a little bit of time that is left over from cutting idiotic musical numbers would spare up some time for some love for the tech categories, and maybe make the famously sluggish second hour fly by.

9. Revitalize the Red Carpet

I don't watch this with great frequency, but there has to be something more here than just saying how gorgeous everyone's dress is and ooh-ing and ahh-ing in the same way.  Why not have actors on the red carpet ask each other questions?  Or talk about their favorite Oscar memories?  Or if we want to embrace social media, have them create Vines or Instagram videos recreating their favorite film scenes on the red carpet.  Have an AMPAS Snapchat account where celebrities can connect with you throughout the night.  Do something that's not so demeaning and tired-the red carpet is literally talking to movie stars for hours, it shouldn't be so insanely boring and you shouldn't be able to sum it up in a ninety second news item.  Plus, the red carpet, outside the high stakes arena of the ceremony, is the time to try and incorporate new technology as a test drive for what works and what seems silly during the actual ceremony.

10. Link This to the Movies

If there's anything that has lost its way this year is that we are too focused on memes and gifs and musical numbers and what have you.  The point of the Oscars is the movies, both a history of the films, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how the nominated films of this year are becoming a part of that history.  This is something that is always a fine line-the Chuck Workman montages always seemed to be the same and constant nostalgia has made the Oscars look generic and not specific to one year (remember the random Chicago/Dreamgirls throwback a few years ago?).  It's always important to remember where we've been, but maybe do that with one clip reel at most (toward the beginning of the show) and through wonderful presenters from yesteryear who are welcoming new members to the AMPAS family.  You can see this with what was clearly the best moment of NPH's night, the Birdman/Whiplash underwear tribute, paying homage to what is the most famed scene in our latest Best Picture.  If you make the night about the movies that are being honored, you'll have a good show.

Those are my thoughts on what I'd do as producer-what would you do if you got to take over Oscar's 88th next year?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ranting On...Graham Moore's Weirdness

I swear, we'll be moving away from the Oscars in a day or two and getting into something a little bit less obsessed with tuxedos and golden statues, but I felt extremely strongly about this recent revelation and wanted to find some way to cogently argue it on the blog.

For those of you who watched the Oscars on Sunday night, you may recall one of the more memorable speeches of the evening came from Graham Moore, the winning writer of The Imitation Game, a film about famed gay scientist Alan Turing.  In his speech, Moore linked himself to Mr. Turing and espoused a celebration of weirdness, and talked about his own struggles with depression and suicide.  It was a moment in the ceremony that was much ballyhooed, and even the most cynical viewers of The Imitation Game could be faulted for feeling a little proud of watching a gay man talk about dealing with depression and the ways that he rose above it, in a way that society never let Alan Turing do decades earlier.

Except for one thing: Graham Moore is not gay.  Asked by the press on Monday, Mr. Moore confirmed that he doesn't identify as a gay person, which puts a different light on the context of his speech.  This might not seem fair, of course (it should mean the same thing regardless of his sexuality, at least to people who like to have things be more concrete when there are clearly shades of grey involved), but life isn't in a vacuum and Graham Moore's speech and its sentiment transform with this assertion.

The reality is that seen in the light of a straight man trying to equate his struggles as an outsider because of his feeling of not fitting in to that of a man persecuted because of his sexuality, this entire speech and its content becomes pretty damn insulting to gay people.  Listen, everyone hated high school and everyone got bullied, and depression can strike anyone, even people seemingly as privileged as Moore was growing up (he went to a liberal Chicago high school and had wealthy parents).  But there's a difference between getting bullied because you love movies or you don't behave in a normative way and something like racism or homophobia being the result of your bullying.  For starters, that bullying doesn't disappear once you graduate and the world gets to embrace who you are.  It carries with you, frequently in institutional ways like banning your rights as a citizen or having to worry about things that heterosexual people don't worry about.  I frequently hear straight actors talk about how their character is "gay, but that's not all they are."  This is idiotic, for starters (of course there are things about them that have nothing to do with sexuality), but it misses the point that being gay informs so much of what you are, principally because you had to struggle and form your worldview in a way shaded by homophobia.

For me, for example, I was bullied throughout much of middle and high school and occasionally even into adulthood.  I have had my life threatened, I have been ostracized, I have been beaten up all for things that had nothing to do with a choice to "be weird," but something that was biological.  Am I proud that I took a stand and ended up being someone who accepts this aspect of myself?  Absolutely, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been times of my life where I didn't wish that I had been born differently, and my sexual orientation inhibits me in ways every single day that it's hard to explain to someone who doesn't live in that specter.  I don't hold hands with a boyfriend in a parking garage because I'm afraid of being beaten up.  I am constantly on alert of who is around me to ensure that I'm not amidst people that will discriminate against me based on my sexuality.  I will frequently brush off questions or comments like "do you think some girls just fake it for attention?" or "I'm fine with him being gay as long as he doesn't come on to me" or being boxed in by certain perceptions from seemingly tolerant individuals who want me to succumb to specific stereotypes about gay men.  I do these things because picking a fight over homophobia every time you experience it is exhausting, pointless, and it happens so often you'd never get anything else done.  The reality is that being gay is about more than just sex-it's about the experiences that led to who you are, and the cautions, tendencies, and realities of your situation as a minority in society.  People throw around a term like "Oppression Olympics" with regular abandon when these sorts of conversations come up because they are incredibly uncomfortable for all involved, but the reality is when there are institutional discriminations against certain groups of people, this term becomes less a pissing contest between who is more mistreated and more a way to try and equate all problems as being solved the same way.  Which they cannot be.

This is why I am so upset about Graham Moore's speech, which is surely full of very good intentions.  I have little doubt that Mr. Moore meant nothing but solidarity with the gay movement, but the reality is that "being weird" and "being gay" are not the same thing, and if we actually want to overcome bullying, it's not just a giant one-size-fits-all band-aid.  Mr. Moore, the son of a First Lady's Chief of Staff and a socially-connected child-of-the-80's didn't mistakenly choose to talk about his own weirdness in this speech and compare it to Alan Turing's; he's not naive enough for us to have assumed that he meant his own sexuality when he talked about Alan Turing's struggles (this is my way of saying that he knew the collective internet would assume he was gay based on his words and, quite frankly, his demeanor, and that he probably should have chosen a different venue to equate weirdness and homosexuality where he had longer than 45 seconds to give a more eloquent analogy).

The reality is that you can choose not to play Dungeons and Dragons and the reality is that you can choose not to be a girl who plays football, but you can't choose to stop being a racial or sexual orientation minority.  It is not right or fair that anyone is picked on, but one of them largely ends when you leave your high school, and the other you deal with every day as an adult.  Mr. Moore's issues with depression are tragic and something that should be addressed by society, but they are not the same thing as what Alan Turing had to go through.  In many ways his view of them being similar informs a lot about his writing of Turing in The Imitation Game, where he frequently equates all of the "being different" aspects of Turing's personality into one bucket, when one aspect of him eventually made him a national hero and the other made him a criminal.  The fact that these were put into the same breath in the film is why I frequently find myself at odds with straight viewers of the movie (many of whom are straight friends and allies whom I respect and admire, though I disagree with them in this instance) when I say the character wasn't actually gay in the film, even though he says that he was.  The script says that he's gay, but the character himself gives no indication of romantic leanings for any other man as an adult nor does he seem to carry the life experiences of someone who has struggled with his sexuality, and his gayness becomes simply something "different" about him.  Much like Mr. Moore's speech, the weirdness serves as a proxy for being gay, when they are two entirely different and unrelated personality aspects.

In conclusion, I do feel like Graham Moore's speech, like all expressions for more tolerance, has good intentions, but it's the wrong thing to say that homophobia is the same as being bullied, because it's not. Tolerance and equality are wonderful goals, but we unfortunately don't get there with a happy smile and a one-size-fits-all solution.  The reality is that you may have to think outside your own personal purview and find a way that isn't instantly relatable to try and get a handle of the issue at hand.  And that starts with admitting that your weirdness and my "weirdness" are not the same thing.

Best and Worst Dressed at the Oscars

The Academy Awards to some people is a wonderful night celebrating the history, majesty, and wonder of the movies, an occasionally infuriating but always magical evening devoted to cinephiles everywhere.  For other people, however, this is the Super Bowl of Fashion, a night where the world's most beautiful creatures (some so gorgeous it's sort of hard to call them human beings, as it's hard to imagine they are the same species as, say, Mama June from Honey Boo Boo) parade around in a sea of the latest in fashion.  I am not one of the latter group, but because I do celebrate Oscar Awareness in all of its glory, I indulge them with a post every year (and to be honest, it's really fun-I've gotten more and more into the fashion aspect of the evening as the years have gone on).

Since I pointedly skipped the Red Carpet this year as part of my protest against women getting asked stupid questions while the men get asked about artistry (and also because I want Ryan Seacrest to GO AWAY), I had a joyous moment of writing down my favorites from the ceremony and from the red carpet photos afterwards, so I'm going into this sight unseen in terms of what the collective internet is saying about these people, with my choices of the best and worst dressed completely of my own choosing (if one of these men or women are showing up in the opposite list, it just goes to show that group-think is a virus on the media).  Without further adieu, my choices for the five worst and ten best-dressed stars of the red carpet:


10. Sienna Miller

A gorgeous mix of black-and-navy, Miller rocked Oscar de la Renta for the Red Carpet.  The color combination is tricky and could have been a disaster, but the navy is so subtle it's a dress you just can't stop staring at.

9. Dakota Johnson

Johnson has been sort of a master-class in celebrity roll-outs.  She hasn't made a fashion mistake since the premiere of her film (and smartly chose her glamorous movie star mother as her date rather than distracting from her emergence onto the national consciousness with a romantic partner), and she saved one of her best looks (a fire-engine red Saint Laurent gown) for the Oscars.  I particularly love the diamond-encrusted strap.

8. Nicole Kidman

I adored this Louis Vuitton number for its play with color (is it white...wait, no, it's not), the mix of what appears to almost be a yellow-green with red without clashing, and in particular for the box-style handbag.

7. America Ferrera

The How to Train Your Dragon 2 star (for those who were trying to place why Ferrera was at the Oscars this year), made the most of her moment-in-the-spotlight in a gorgeous seafoam-green Jenny Packham dress complete with chic belt and a gorgeous brick-red handbag.

6. Jennifer Aniston

Jen smartly didn't skip the Oscars this year (a mistake other snubbed stars have made in the past), even choosing to present and make a major smash in a steamy Versace with a wonderful flowing down hairstyle rather than going with the traditional up.  Simple, chic elegance.

5. Emma Stone

If you're getting your first nomination but you know you're not going to win, it's time to make a truly bold fashion statement.  This chartreuse Elie Saab gown is daring, but perfectly counters Stone's hair color and has a splash of the modern (the lacy material) with a throwback to the old (the cut is pure Dynasty).

4. Eddie Redmayne

If you're a stylish and handsome younger actor who is likely to be photographed with the most coveted man in Hollywood, it's time to make a splash.  Redmayne's Alexander McQueen tuxedo was a splash of blue in a sea of black-and-white duds, but wasn't so ostentatious that it seemed tacky.  Plus, unlike Ansel Elgort's adventure in navy, this seemed to be tailored to Redmayne's lanky frame.

3. Keira Knightley

Maternity couture is a hard road to travel, particularly if you're a style icon, which is why Knightley wore what was one of my favorite adventures in clothes Sunday night, and along with Stone and Kidman, was one of those dresses that could have easily gone to the bad but was stylistically bold in the right way.  I love the words, the neutral tones, and the down-and-flowing locks.

2. Marion Cotillard

Cotillard is perpetually on the best-dressed list, and her Dior was no exception.  I loved the shockingly baggy back to the dress and the gorgeously flirty front to the gown.  It feels like something you'd see launching on a Paris catwalk, not on the more traditional platform of the Oscars.

1. Reese Witherspoon

It has the perfect color scheme of a Chanel suit, but with the clean lines of Dior-I mean it has to be Tom Ford, doesn't it?  Reese made black-and-white feel fresh and the subtle diamonds just add to the elegance.


5. Scarlett Johansson

The dress itself is sultry if a little bit dull Versace, but the bizarre neckpiece is clearly meant for another dress and is WAY too matchy-matchy for this color scheme.

4. Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth, wearing the most expensive prom dress at Barney's.

3. Chrissy Teigen

The makeup is too extreme, the slit too high, and the cut too low-it looks like she's wearing a bathrobe designed by Frederick's of Hollywood (on the plus side it's a good color for her).

2. Felicity Jones

It's probably best not to wear what could easily double as a discount wedding dress to the Oscars, particularly on your first nomination.  The worst part is that Jones wore a gorgeous and fashionable look to the Vanity Fair party later in the evening that would have ROCKED IT on the red carpet, particularly since no one had a particularly memorable little black dress.

1. Jared Leto

It's probably best not to use Dumb & Dumber as your fashion inspiration.

And those are my thoughts on this year's fashions-what about you?  Share the best and worst on your dressed list in the comments!

Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards: The Good, the Indifferent, the Bad, and the Ugly

Well, we're officially done with the Oscars for the year.  I will probably pipe in on Tuesday with some of the thoughts on the fashion, once I get to see all of the fashion, and we're six films away from the OVP write-ups where you'll get to know a bit more about what I would pick, but for now I'm going to just go with my reactions to the show itself.  I'll try to limit myself to no thoughts (one way or the other) on the winners as I am saving those for the OVP (it's always Oscar season at The Many Rantings of John) and because I've been discussing those for months.  As we do here, here's my Good, Indifferent, Bad, and Ugly of the 87th Academy Awards.

The Good

-Literally every year, the Oscar producers forget that rather than wanting to see the host or the fashion or even the winners, the audience really want to see movie stars in their natural habitat.  And every year my favorite moments are the off-the-cuff moments with celebrities.  Like Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant reaction shots or Jessica Chastain cooing "Chivo" when Emmanuel Lubezki won or (my personal favorite, seen above) Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez reacting to the equal pay speech from Patricia Arquette in what has to be the most gif-able moment of the ceremony when they didn't know the camera was on-these are the best moments of the ceremony. Perhaps no one was better at this than Felicity Jones, who had a hot mic incident ("they've won a lot, haven't they?"), a Julie Andrews fan girl moment, and the random realization that she was applauding for herself.  Here's to hoping that Ms. Jones is invited back soon as either a presenter or a nominee, as she was the unsung MVP of last night's ceremony.

-I love when the Oscars get political.  Millions of people are watching, so it's time to have something to say, and boy did Hollywood have something to say.  From advocating for women's rights (Patricia Arquette may have brought a piece of paper with, but that's only because she had something to say, damn it haters!) to the brilliant calls for more mental and physical health awareness to calls for tolerance toward immigrants, it was a night of important messages and I was most pleased.  I also loved the trend of the documentary and short subject contenders who shut up the orchestra by starting to talk about something serious the second the music started, hence lengthening their speeches.  Just in general, 45 seconds isn't long enough-it's a long show, people can get used to it.  If you're desperate about people not being able to stay up late due to work the next day, put it on a Saturday or on HBO so you don't have to worry about commercials.

-Two truly random things I loved: one, the commercials were excellent this year.  For all of the talk about the Super Bowl being the crown jewel of advertising, the Oscars continually get innovative, oftentimes funny, and frequently moving commercials.  And this is officially bumped to this spot because after watching it four times I finally realized it was Robert Redford voicing that Comcast commercial (I could not place that voice for the life of me!).  Secondly, I skipped the red carpet this year, and loved it.  It was refreshing to see the gowns and outfits for the first time onstage and I didn't have to endure talented artists like Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep reduced to a designer label and inane questions about their dieting traditions.

-The interactive set was gorgeous-please keep this next year.

The Indifferent

-I loved the idea of interviewing the seat fillers (I actually think this could have been something that was done throughout the night), but the Steve Carell joke fell flat.  Perhaps Carell isn't a comedian who is funny off-the-cuff, but I feel like the punchline got botched and may have been better-served with a more improvisational personality like Will Ferrell.

-It was a smart decision to go with Travolta and Idina to present-it was a major moment last year, and trying to bottle car-crash lightning in a bottle a second time was worth the risk.  But what was with the face-holding John-seriously?  Couldn't they have just stuck with the easy but funny pablam instead?

-I am not going to get into the quality of the winners, but I will say that while Graham Moore's speech was nice for The Imitation Game and extremely moving and he's ridiculously adorable and I now have a crush on him and what is his Instagram account because there are like 40,000 Graham Moore's, I felt like it was the same one Dustin Lance Black did six years ago.  Why not try to stumble a new barrier for gay people rather than the tired "kid living with a dream one."  Perhaps want more realistic representations of gay people onscreen rather than gay-in-name-only performances like Benedict Cumberbatch in...oh, wait, I see the problem now.

The Bad

-I haven't really been discussing Neil Patrick Harris too much because, well, it was just okay.  There were some lines that were absolutely aces (the best being the JK Simmons/Farmers Insurance jingle and the brilliant Birdman/Whiplash parody), but by-and-large it was slightly underwhelming.  A lot of energy got sucked out of the room when Harris got too schmaltzy in the opening with a poorly-timed musical number that was identical in spirit to one he did at the Tony Awards a few years back (the music was too fast to catch all of the jokes...and there weren't enough jokes to begin with), and in hindsight they should have gone with a monologue, as so much of Hollywood got left on the table this past year (did anyone even bring up Sony/The Interview?!?).

-I ask this every single year, but can we cut the In Memoriam song number?  Jennifer Hudson is a brilliant vocalist and frequently the best reason to watch an awards show, but honestly it was such a yawn and this has never been a particularly stirring addition to the ceremony.  I'm fine with the show being super long, but if there's a portion of it begging to get cut, it's not the Shorts categories-it's the In Memoriam song.

-Speaking of musical performances, as wonderful as Common and John Legend were, it felt a little bit too weighted to them.  Everyone and his mother knew they were winning that Oscar, but couldn't they have made it a little bit more suspenseful.  It felt like they spent all of the budget on that number and "Everything is Awesome" and left the other three songs to sort of rot there.  Even the camera and sound crews felt like they sort of forgot how to do their jobs during Tim McGraw's weird constant wide shots and Adam Levine's vocals getting drowned out by the instruments.  Admittedly Legend and Common may have been the only ones to show up to rehearsals (we're dealing with temperamental stars here), but it felt like the TLC wasn't properly spread.

The Ugly

-Neil Patrick Harris, as I mentioned above, was uneven, but one bit clearly was a dud: the idiotic ballot prediction schtick.  This was wrong for a number of reasons.  For starters, it felt like Octavia Spencer, who is frequently very funny in interviews, was caught off-guard by it and she probably should have been looped in beforehand to maybe nail a joke or two.  Secondly, it was the only moment in the film where Harris's famous gravitation toward narcissism in his humor (my chief worry when he was selected) was indulged (most of the audience probably isn't aware of his penchant for magic, both at the show and at home).  And the jokes were kind of duds (plus, he does this every year at the Tonys, so it's tired for awards show hounds).

-While I can't recall a particularly strong presenter (am I blanking here, or was there someone who was particularly funny-the show seriously needed a Will Ferrell or Kristin Wiig or Bette Midler to show up), the worst was Terence Howard.  My brother postulated that perhaps the teleprompter broke (which I hope someone can confirm as that would bump this up to merely bad), but if it wasn't then Howard needs to keep it together.  Presenters are not supposed to have favorites when they are giving out awards, and he clearly felt less enthused about Whiplash than The Imitation Game and Selma.  It was one of those truly cringe-worthy TV moments.

-Did they really play The Bodyguard theme for Viola Davis?  Really?!?

-I am sure I'm going to be in the minority here as she sounded great, but what was the point of the Lady Gaga tribute?  She has no real connection to the movies and isn't what you'd call a particularly popular singer at the moment (her star has fallen enough that she probably couldn't get a solo performance at the Grammys at this point), so why was she called upon for The Sound of Music tribute?  Get someone like Anna Kendrick or Anne Hathaway or Emily Blunt (or hell, all three) to do it-someone who is actually a vibrant musical force in movies today.  And speaking of The Sound of Music...

-Why bring out Sean Penn to present Best Picture when Julie Andrews is clearly who should have done it?  She's better at presenting, she has the Best Picture history thing, and she doesn't feel the need to make presenting about herself (Penn is a brilliant, talented actor but he's a narcissist and a curmudgeon as a celebrity, whereas Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way).  Is it so wrong to have a woman present Best Picture?!?  Seriously Academy, a 50th Anniversary and a beloved Oscar winner is right there for the taking-what more do you need?!?

And those are my thoughts on last night-what are yours?  Share them below in the comments!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2014 Oscar Predictions

Well, we're just a few hours away from the big ceremony, so at this point, after months of hemming, analyzing, and hawing, it's time to put my money where my mouth is and just predict!  Let's jump in at the top prize:

Picture: I'm aware that the collective internet has moved to Birdman as their prediction, but I just cannot help but shake the fact that Boyhood has such a special narrative that could lead into its winning.  My head is saying Birdman, my heart is saying Boyhood, and I'm going to do something rare (and oftentimes foolish) with Oscar predictions and go with my heart.  Boyhood takes the most competitive Best Picture race in twelve years.

Director: I know that with the DGA I should be going with Inarritu and Birdman, but Boyhood's Richard Linklater has to be considered a slight favorite if only for the ambition of his project (he's going to have to win somewhere, after all).  I'll stick with Linklater here, as I think if there's going to be a split Birdman/Linklater seems the most logical.

Actor: The collective internet has been running around comparing Adrian Brody to Bradley Cooper with utter abandon, but I think that Cooper's just going to have to sit this one out (surprises like that don't happen every day).  It's weird that Keaton can't seem to catch the headwinds that Birdman have been providing at most of the guild awards, but he can't so I'm going to side with Eddie Remayne for the victory.

Actress: Okay, we're now in non-competitive races (side note: don't you HATE how the print issue of Entertainment Weekly tries to make every race competitive when it clearly isn't?).  Either way, Julianne Moore will finally take an Oscar after five nominations and one of the best-orchestrated campaigns I've seen in years.  It's hard to tell even who is in second place (I could imagine 80-90% of the ballots will bear Ms. Moore's name)-probably Reese or Felicity, but who knows?  Not us, since Juli will win.

Supporting Actor: I'm a bit flummoxed every year when a middling Supporting Actor performance seems to stampede to this win, but JK Simmons is a massive favorite and will trump eternal bridesmaids Mark Ruffalo and Edward Norton.

Supporting Actress: Similarly, Patricia Arquette has ridden the Boyhood wave to victory all season and there's no reason to assume she won't do it again.  Keira Knightley and Emma Stone will just have to wait for a less lock-step season to pick up their trophies.

Original Screenplay: Returning to competitive categories, this appears to be a three-way race between the writer-directors of Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Since I'm predicting Boyhood for the big two, I will skip it here in a spread-your-ballot sort of way and give it to Inarritu over Wes Anderson, since Birdman's going to have to win a few trophies somewhere.

Damien Chazelle, writer of Whiplash
Adapted Screenplay: Nick Davis compared this race to 2009's Adapted Screenplay race, when we all thought Up in the Air would win its sole Oscar here and then it ended up being another one for Precious.  The same thing could happen five years later with The Imitation Game losing its one slam dunk to Whiplash, but I'm not ballsy enough to predict it.  Harvey gets his one Oscar here.

Foreign Language Film: It's hard to tell if the Academy is feeling particularly political this year, in which case a bit of a middle finger to Vladimir Putin through voting for Leviathan may be in order.  However, I think it's going to be the end of Poland's long drought with Ida finally winning the country its first Oscar nomination.  It's also worth noting that occasionally things surprise here, and if there's a surprise look to Argentina's Wild Tales, the lightest of these five films.

Documentary Feature: I've heard criticisms of CtizenFour's formatting, but despite upstart campaigns by Virunga and Last Days of Vietnam (which, if it were to win, would likely be the first time a president's niece ever won an Oscar) its subject matter seems too perfectly-tailored to the past year not to win.  Here's to hoping the victors get political, as that's always fun during the Documentary races.

Documentary Short Subject: Again, it's hard to imagine a film that better encapsulates outrage over the past year than Crisis Hotline, a film about veterans dealing with PTSD and suicide.  If the film seems too-polished (it was made by HBO and feels like something you'd see on TV), they might go with the cancer documentary Joanna, but I am going with Crisis Hotline for my prediction.

Emmanuel Lubezki
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki is such a strong cinematographer it seems deeply unlikely that anyone will begrudge him back-to-back Oscars, so I see him taking this for Birdman, though the whole digital vs. film argument could result in an upset for Robert Yeoman's The Grand Budapest Hotel (who benefits by being the only nominee made on film).

Film Editing: Without Birdman to contend with, this appears to be a battle between first-time nominees Sandra Adair (Boyhood) and Tom Cross (Whiplash).  One of the great questions of tonight is "what is the strength of Whiplash?" as it could easily end up with four trophies or just one.  My gut is this is one it misses (Adair's twelve-year journey is probably going to impress lay people at the Oscars even if she didn't have that much to edit since they included almost everything that was filmed in the final picture), and Boyhood wins.

Production Design: We now enter the Grand Budapest portion of the evening, as it's difficult to see anything over-coming its sets.  Second place is probably a battle between the fairy tale excess of Into the Woods and the space-work of Interstellar, but neither of them will come close to gold.

Milena Canonero
Costume: Pity poor Anna Shephard, who is the only non-winner nominated in this category and is almost certainly in fifth place for Maleficent (she'll have others, I suppose, as this category likes to repeat).  My money is on three-time winner Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel) trumping three-time winner Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods) since Production Design and Costume usually go hand-in-hand.

Original Score: Perhaps the hardest-to-call below-the-line category, I would say that if Alexandre Desplat only had one nomination he'd probably be the victor in a "it's time" sort of way (he's never won despite perpetual nominations), but his work in Imitation Game and Grand Budapest will surely split the vote leaving first-time nominee Johan Johansson (The Theory of Everything) with a trophy.

Original Song: Selma's shot at the actual Best Picture faded weeks ago, but I still think it has enough supporters (and a lack of obvious competitors) to emerge victorious here.  Diane Warren will just have to join Alexandre Desplat, Roger Deakins, and Dan Sudick at the bar to rant about how none of them ever seem to win an Oscar.

Visual Effects: A genuine horse race of a contest here, as Interstellar has both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and (more quickly) Guardians of the Galaxy staring it down.  I'm predicting Interstellar, but there is clearly a palpable energy surrounding Guardians of the Galaxy and it could win on either of its two nominations (if only because Hollywood, in a lackluster Box Office year, may be grateful for a new franchise and a new movie star in Chris Pratt).

Makeup & Hairstyling: Like above, Guardians of the Galaxy could be a shocker here, but I'm going to guess Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier take the trophy for Grand Budapest (the latter winning his second trophy in three years).

Sound Mixing: Another tight race (this is going to be a really fun night in terms of nail-biters), with American Sniper clearly having momentum (and a boatload of cash), but I cannot help but think that one of the drumming movies (Birdman and Whiplash) will take this, and I'm going to go with Whiplash since I skipped it in two tight races before.

Sally Hawkins
Short Film-Animated: I already regret this prediction, but I'm going to do one of my no-guts-no-glory predictions right now and pick the dramatic The Bigger Picture, which has interesting animation and a more adult story over the bullying drama The Dam Keeper and the Disney-approved Feast.  I am aware that either of the latter two films would be a smarter choice on-paper, but sometimes you have to take a risk.

Animated Feature: With The Lego Movie out of the running (in a move similar to The Adventures of Tintin a few years back where a frontrunner missed and resulted in a weirdly open race), it's hard not to see the writing on the wall with How to Train Your Dragon 2 taking the Globes and dominating the Annies.  Still, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Disney smells an opportunity for an easy trophy and lands Big Hero 6 (it would help with the sequel argument the producers are currently pitching) or that Princess Kaguya (which is getting raves from animators) pulls a Spirited Away and steals away a competitive race for one of the perpetually-losing foreign films.

Short Film-Live Action: The fact that you have two Oscar-approved stars (Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent) in The Phone Call makes it impossible not to predict.  Boogaloo or Parvaneh both have a lot going for them in terms of past preference for similarly-minded films, but movie stars are tough to beat, particularly when you're screening at home, so I'm going with The Phone Call.

Sound Editing: Being a Best Picture nominee and the highest-grossing film of the year (or at least it's about to be) means that, even with the controversy, American Sniper has to win somewhere and it's hard to see it not being in Sound Editing in a similar fashion to another recent Eastwood picture, Letters from Iwo Jima.

And there are my predictions-share yours in the comments, and we'll get all into who actually wins tomorrow!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Ranting On...the Struggle to Have It All

I have recently been feeling extremely overwhelmed in my life.  Work, my social life, my goals for myself, exercise-it's been a bit of a mess.  I have found that the more I get done, the more that I find myself struggling to complete more.  This is partially my personality, admittedly-restless is not the most attractive adjective one can be given, but it's probably an apt one for me personally.  I do not get bored (saying "I'm bored" was basically the equivalent of swearing in my house growing up), and quite frankly this is partially because I kind of only think boring people get bored, or at least unorganized people do.  I'm not saying I don't enjoy some downtime or vegging out, but as a general rule I find that there is never a lack of projects to do, things to clean or organize, articles to write and movies to see, dates to plan and friends to reach out toward.

The problem I think that comes from all of this anxiety is that it's something that we as a society are not really doing anything to fix or support.  In fact, we exacerbate it.  Frequently I find that conversations with friends, family, and colleagues are less about sharing the best things in our lives, but more about complaint sessions about what we can't get through and "pissing contests" over whose woes or hindrances are the most difficult.  I frequently find, for example, that bringing up a complaint usually becomes a one-upsmanship sort of situation.  Most conversations could simply be a back-and-forth of "you think that's bad," and you would save valuable time.

I don't think this is a great idea, though, because it's not really being supportive of what is (admittedly) a "first-world" problem: "having it all."  This is a construct that, outside of a Nancy Meyers movie, is simply not possible.  It's not possible to be incredibly well-read, versed in art and film and music while also raising two perfect children, having a great marriage, having a meaningful and fulfilling career, saving while paying down debt while going on fabulous and intellectual vacations, eating right on a budget while exercising daily, meditating, going to therapy, taking hikes in nature, being politically aware while also taking time for hobbies, having a clean, organized, and decorated home and electronics systems, staying up with the latest fashions and trends, taking time to be an active member of your church and community while still volunteering, being a great friend and family member, and still finding time to sleep eight hours a night.  It's not possible.  And I don't get why we pretend it is.  We frequently chastise Madison Avenue for giving us unrealistic body types and for randomly making us feel ugly, but everyone knows that no one looks like Gisele Bundchen and that any hope to do so is fruitless.  Why don't we call out that NO ONE has it all.  Even the most positive of people have things they wish they could change in their lives and things that they fall short on (in their estimation).  So it's time to stop measuring ourselves by impossible standards.

And it's time to stop making others feel like crap.  You know what's extremely hard?  Raising a kid.  It's insane, and having a little empathy when a friend cannot go out because they need to pick up their kids from school or from swim practice is not the only thing you can do.  You can also, I don't know, try to work around their schedule.  This helps the other person who, in all likelihood, is also struggling to have it all, get a little closer to this goal (even if it's unattainable).  Too often I see my childless friends write off my friends with children for a Friday night activity simply because they know that they'll say no.  A) Ask them anyway (no one wants to feel excluded) and B) maybe try planning a bit ahead of time so that they can find a sitter or have it closer to the Pay Day that isn't already spent on tuition and the mortgage.

The same, of course, goes for single friends or childless friends of married couples.  If I had a nickel for every time I have gotten a back-handed compliment about how much time I get because I'm single or how the reason I'm able to accomplish something is because I don't have children...well, I wouldn't have to worry about how I am the only person contributing to my retirement accounts, rent, and monthly expenses.  No matter your living situation, someone else can ALWAYS make it seem worse and the reality is that each lifestyle choice comes with its own set of worries and rewards.  Plus, these sorts of cruelties feed into the worst feelings we have about ourselves.  People worry about being bad friends, being unloved, and being bad parents or children-we don't need to add to the chorus here when it's simply that our time balance leans more toward one goal than another.

Plus it's so simple to help a fellow human being out with having it all and reaching their goals.  Book or film clubs, Pinterest sharing, potlucks with themes, group yoga, setting up friends on dates, couples nights, babysitter recommendations-these are all just some of the ways you can help.  That coworker who has been running past your desk from meeting-to-meeting for the last six hours-perhaps offer up fifteen minutes to help them with what they're missing at their desks.  That movie you're dying to see-maybe find a night that works for a friend who has clearly been exacerbated lately.  There's no rule about "having it all" without anyone else's help.

And maybe, just maybe, go the extra mile and ask someone about what their goals are.  Perhaps they're too afraid to talk about such things, and their hiccup in getting to the next level isn't time or energy but just that they don't know how.  I have found in life that asking someone what their goals are is perhaps A) the best way to get to know them, B) the best way to share the wins from your life and maybe some tips, as long as you aren't turning it into a brag session, and C) it inevitably gets you closer to your own goals (karma is wonderful that way).  I cannot tell you how frequently I have talked to a friend or coworker and realized that we both had a similar goal and suddenly we're both each other's personal coaches to lose weight or read more or get that next promotion.  I don't want to get too Dalai Lama here, but the reality is that positive energy is going to help more than negativity, and most certainly it's going to help more than making yourself say something condescending to cover your own inadequacies.

Throughout Lent I'm going to be turning one of my Friday articles into something I'm passionate about that I think brings some positive light into the world (rather than depriving myself of chocolate for 3.5 weeks and feeling guilty for the remaining 2.5 about the Cadbury Eggs I have stuffed in my desk drawer), and each week I'm going to issue a challenge (that I hope you'll do and I promise I will do).  My challenge this week-try not to say anything condescending to make yourself feel better but someone else feel worse and find at least one person over the next week who is struggling with a goal and find a way to make it easier for them to achieve it.  If you do either of these two things, please share in the comments as I'd love to hear it!