Sunday, September 23, 2018

A History of the Closest Senate Races of This Century

Perhaps the most idiotic, yet relatively apt, cliche when it comes to discussing elections is "it all comes down to turnout."  This is, of course, axiomatically true-the candidate who receives the most votes in one election is inevitably the candidate that will win (unless, for some reason, your country has a moronic system that decides Wyoming voters are more valuable than ones from California, but this article isn't about the electoral college).  But aside from the highest office in the land, every other position in the United States comes down, ultimately, to which candidate has the most votes to win said office, and because we don't have mandatory voting in the United States, whichever candidate turns out the most votes gets the win.

I'm going to contradict that a teensy bit right now-most elections probably don't entirely come out to turnout, or at least not in the way that that cliche is meant (unless taken literally).  The reality is that most elections are not that close, even what we conventionally think of as close elections.  While we see probably 8-10 truly competitive Senate races this year, for example, my gut says that on November 6th, only 2-3 of those races will have been so close a last-minute push (experts disagree on how much a strong ground game is worth, but it's no more than 2-points, and some argue even less) would have made the difference.  Most of the races in Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, Florida, and the like this year will be decided by 4-5 points, maybe even into the double digits, because the polls underestimated a candidate or a wave or any number of other factors.  In other words, your vote, or even a number of votes, probably won't ultimately make the difference in the battle for the Senate.

Before I start getting irate comments, I want to point out three things here, as you'll see throughout this article.  One, voting always matters-enough people thinking that their vote doesn't matter and therefore they don't show up certainly decided every election on this list, and undoubtedly more of them than I can mention in one article.  Two, you don't know which Senate races are going to be the ones that are decided by a slim margin.  We'll profile several races on this list that were on virtually no one's radar that just got decided by a few handful of voters, either protecting an incumbent party or throwing them out.  And third, and most importantly, you have no idea what that one senator will be voting upon during his or her tenure in office.  I point this out a lot on Twitter, but the reality is that four current Republican senators won their last elections by less than two-points.  Two of them have their Democratic opponents win instead, and Brett Kavanaugh is Robert Bork.  Neil Gorsuch is Merrick Garland.  And names like Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos are political asterisks rather than cabinet secretaries.  Every election matters, particularly for the Senate which is like playing a game of chess.  So, you need to vote, even if only 2-3 states will ultimately be close enough where your efforts are close to making the difference.  That fact, that only a few states are going to make the difference, should make you want to vote more, not less, in my opinion, as you genuinely don't know if you're one of the few people that could make the difference.  And for the record, I've been "one of those people" on this list and it was a ballot that I was truly apathetic about casting until I realized how much it mattered on Election Night.

But how often does this happen, and what do those races look like?  I thought it would be fun to profile each Senate Cycle from this century below and give you an idea of the kinds of races that tend to be close, and what races ultimately were slim wins.  I also want to give you an indication of some of the surprising senators that might not be in office anymore were it not for these elections, proving that not only is this, say, a good chance to oust someone like a Marsha Blackburn or Ted Cruz, it's possibly the only opportunity Democrats in those states have.

(Almost) Sen. Katie McGinty (D-PA)
2016

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Democrats +2
Won By Less Than Two Points: New Hampshire (Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) won by 0.2 points over incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R)) and Pennsylvania (Sen. Pat Toomey (R) won by 1.5 points over Chief of Staff Katie McGinty (D))
What the Polls Were Saying: I'm going to try and use the Real Clear Politics average as long as their data will allow during this article since it's arguably the best way to track poll performance vs. actual results, and looking at their polling averages, both of these races were something of an upset.  Ayotte led by +1.5 points in the polling averages, overtaking Hassan in the last week of the campaign, while McGinty had led for most of the fall in Pennsylvania, and was at +2.0 points.  Ultimately what mattered the most was the presidential race was far more important than anyone thought in straight-ticket voting.  While I don't have the precise data on ticket-splitting, the margin for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire (+0.4-points) and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania (+0.7-points) was less than a percentage point difference between the two candidates.  2016 was the only year since the passage of the 17th Amendment where there were no splits between the POTUS/Senate ultimate winners (though the margins in some states saw dramatic differences between the two offices' candidates like in Missouri), so a stronger push by Clinton could have elected McGinty in Pennsylvania and vice versa for Trump in New Hampshire for Ayotte, though in the latter's case that may not have been possible as Ayotte didn't endorse Trump and was actively distancing herself from him at the time (a problem that Clinton/McGinty didn't have).

(Almost) Two-Term Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC)
2014

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Republicans +9
Won By Less Than Two Points: Colorado (Rep. Cory Gardner (R) won by 1.9 points over incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D)), North Carolina (House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) won by 1.5 points over incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D)), and Virginia (Sen. Mark Warner (D) won by 0.8 points over RNC Chair Ed Gillespie (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: 2014 was a bloodbath for Democrats, losing nine seats, including five incumbents (in addition to Hagan & Udall, there was also Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), and Mary Landrieu (LA)).  That said, arguably the biggest shock on Election Night, and perhaps the best reason to always vote, was Mark Warner.  Warner showed a very healthy lead in the polls in 2014, up by +9.7-points in the RCP average, and yet won by less than a point thanks to a depressed Democratic electorate and Virginia still being a slightly swingier state (even since then, the state has shifted further left and may move further still in 2018 if the Democrats can nab a majority of the congressional seats).  The other two seats were expected to be close, with Gardner slightly underperforming his RCP average of +2.5 and Tillis well overperforming his (they had Hagan winning by 0.7 points).  I'll say this several times, but it's impossible not to see that had Democrats been remotely excited about voting in 2014 in the way they normally are in a presidential election, Hagan & Udall being in the Senate right now would stop Brett Kavanaugh.  It's worth noting that Gillespie tried to propel himself to further victory in 2017 with a nasty governor's race he ended up being clobbered in, and Udall has been rumored to want a rematch in 2020.

(Almost) Sen. Shelley Berkley (D-NV)
2012

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Democrats +2
Won By Less Than Two Points: Nevada (Sen. Dean Heller (R) won by 1.2 points over Rep. Shelley Berkley (D)) and North Dakota (Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) won by 0.9 points over Rep. Rick Berg (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: 2012, unlike 2014, was a year where Democrats saw a bit of an over-performance of the polls, something that would surely help them if that were the case in 2018.  Both Heitkamp & Berkley vastly out-performed the polls, with RCP's final averages in these races being Berg +5.7 and Heller +4.0 (it's worth noting that Jon Tester was also projected to lose using the RCP average, though he ultimately won by +3.7 points, so this is a sure case where you can't just count on the polls).  Heitkamp was a notable upset, as virtually no one saw that coming, including boy wonder that year Nate Silver; she may well have to overcome similar odds in 2018 if polls are to be believed, though Cramer isn't doing nearly as well as Berg was at this point.  Berkley has publicly complained in the years since that the Democratic Party abandoned a winnable race, and it's hard not to see the validity there.  Berkley greatly out-performed the polls, and lost by less than 2-points in a state that Barack Obama won by seven.  Considering Obama ultimately could have had more use for Berkley in the long run than, say, padding his electoral college count slightly (for all of the talk about 2012 being a particularly close election, it really wasn't compared to 2000, 2004, or 2016), were he to have leant more support to dragging her on his coattails, it surely would have helped his second term in office.

(Almost) Sen. Alexi Giannoulias (D-IL)
2010

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Republicans +6
Won By Less Than Two Points: Colorado (Sen. Michael Bennet (D) won by 1.7 points over District Attorney Ken Buck (R)), Illinois (Rep. Mark Kirk won by 1.6 points over State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D)), and Pennsylvania (Rep. Pat Toomey (R) won by 2.0 points over Rep. Joe Sestak (D))
What the Polls Were Saying: I oftentimes think of 2010 as the year the Democrats just skated by a true disaster, and in some ways that's true.  Bennet, for example, winning by such a slim margin was surely a result of the Republicans fouling up their primary, same as in Delaware and Nevada (the latter of which, famously, saw one of the biggest over-performances of a candidate ever in the RCP as Harry Reid beat Sharron Angle by 7 points over the RCP average, which had predicted a narrow victory for Angle).  But it's also worth noting that the cycle that once looked like the Republicans would take back the Senate could have been even more disappointing for the Republicans, as Giannoulias & Sestak both ran much better than the polls (Kirk was at +3.3 and Toomey at +4.5), and wins there also would have given the Democrats two more votes for Merrick Garland (this is the earliest class that would have been guaranteed to vote on that critical judicial nomination).  It's worth noting that 2010 is the first of these years that we've already seen the sequel, and that these races all swung to the Democrats by a stronger margin in 2016, though in Pennsylvania's case not by enough (Toomey being the only person on this list to have won both his initial election and reelection's by less than two points).  Kirk got crushed in his 2016 bid and Bennet was fine when he ran for a second full-term.

(Barely) Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)
2008

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Democrats +8
Won By Less Than Two Points: Alaska (Mayor Mark Begich (D) won by 1.5 points over incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens (R)) and Minnesota (Comedian Al Franken (D) won by just 312 votes, or roughly .01-points over incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: With a tanking economy, an unpopular war, and a mishandled hurricane relief effort, George W. Bush was certainly going to pad the Democrats' majority, though even he had no way of knowing that 60 votes would soon be in store for the Democrats with Arlen Specter switching parties, giving Barack Obama seven months with a filibuster-proof majority, in the process passing one of the most comprehensive healthcare bills in American history (they needed all 60 of those votes to do it).  The RCP average starts getting a little bit wonky here (Alaska, for example, they only list one poll), so I'm going to have to give you a bit of a gut reaction based on my own polling research for that race.  As it looks, most polls showed Begich doing considerably better in Alaska, something that was a telling sign of his future in the state as he would lose his reelection despite solid personal numbers and may well lose the governor's race this year despite ample opportunity.  Minnesota does have an average, which had Coleman at +6.3.  In hindsight, we should have seen a narrower victory coming considering Bush's unpopularity and the fact that Obama was going to win, but Minnesota (at the time) genuinely didn't like either of these guys that much which is why former Sen. Dean Barkley would win a crucial third party bloc of votes.  Coleman has not run for major office since (despite a lot of people assuming he'd seek the governor's mansion or the RNC Chairmanship a few years back), and Franken would go from career highs (a solid reelection, rumors of a 2020 presidential bid) to a major career defeat when he was accused of groping multiple women and was forced to resign.  But it has to be said-313 more people vote for Coleman instead of Franken (roughly the population of my old 3-story apartment building), and 11 million people don't get healthcare.

(Barely) Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA)
2006

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Democrats +5 (it's +6 if you don't count the Joe Lieberman going from Democrat to Independent as a loss for the D's since he still conferenced with them)
Won By Less Than Two Points: Montana (State Sen. Jon Tester (D) won by 0.9 points over incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R)) and Virginia (Sec. of Navy Jim Webb (D) won by 0.4 points over incumbent Sen. George Allen (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: I have seen bigger Senate victories for the Democrats, and bigger victories in general, but there will never be an election night I enjoyed more than watching the 2006 elections (if the D's win both houses in 2018, it will probably top this night, however).  The entire cycle had been a conversation about how the Democrats needed to run a perfect race to win the Senate, and even then it wasn't likely to happen.  But the Democrats quickly cleaned house and managed to pick up these two races, odd twins of themselves if you look in hindsight.  RCP, which called every single one of the Senate races right in 2006 (basically unheard of since-at least one state gets off-kilter), had Tester at +3 and Webb at +1.5, both of them ultimately under-performing as the Democrats didn't close as well as they could have in the last few days of the election (likely not enough to cost them any Senate seats, but may well have plucked a House seat or two off of the map).  Still, if you look at the races they had very different trajectories.  In Montana, former "accidental" Sen. Conrad Burns (he was a shock win in 1988, defeating longtime Sen. John Melcher that cycle as part of the Bush landslide), had been trailing the entire race until the last minute when his state's natural red tendencies caught up with the polls, but the Republicans who had largely abandoned him didn't have a strong enough operation to take advantage of such a race (have the election two weeks later, and Burns probably wins).  George Allen, on the other hand, had an easy shot at reelection and potentially even the White House in 2008 until he was caught on camera using a racial slur, making the contest a tied race and giving the Democrats a shock victory in what in hindsight was a harbinger to a Blue Virginia.

(Almost) Sen. Betty Castor (D-FL)
2004

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Republicans +4
Won By Less Than Two Points: Florida (HUD Sec. Mel Martinez (R) won by 1.1 points over former Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D)), Kentucky (Sen. Jim Bunning (R) won by 1.4 points over State Sen. Dan Mongiardo), and South Dakota (Rep. John Thune (R) won by 1.2 points over Sen. Tom Daschle (D))
What the Polls Were Saying: The polls only accurately called one of these races in what appears to be our final RCP year with full data.  John Thune's average headed into the night was 1.3 points, but I still think there were Democrats who were stunned that the Republicans would attack their leader and actually successfully take him out.  Coming two years after the demoralizing loss of the Senate in 2002, the Democrats endured for four years their longest period of GOP control of the White House/Senate/House since 1929-33 (if the Republicans win both the House and Senate this cycle, this will be duplicated and make Donald Trump the first GOP president since Herbert Hoover to have a Republican majority in both houses of Congress for a full-term).  Castor was up +0.5 points in Florida that year, and her loss can be attributed to Bush doing quite well in Florida four years after the ultimate "every vote matters" election in 2000, while Bunning's under-performance was a huge surprise as he was up by +7.5 points.  The race featuring the former Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer became so close because Bunning repeatedly used racial and ethnic slurs against Mongiardo, comparing him to one of Saddam Hussein's sons.  Had Bush not won the state by twenty points, Bunning surely would have sunk in a surprise loss that year.  Two odd things worth noting in 2004, however.  One, with the exception of Daschle, none of the Republican pickups that year were in states where they defeated incumbents, as five retiring Southern senators (John Edwards, Fritz Hollings, Zell Miller, Bob Graham, and John Breaux) left huge openings that the Democrats couldn't sustain, thus making this one of the only years in modern history to have only one defeated incumbent in a general election.  And secondly, despite a plethora of incoming Republicans who were elected this year, it would be a Democrat who would become the indisputable star of this freshman class: a young state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

(Barely) Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD)
2002

Ultimate Net for Cycle: Republicans +2
Won By Less Than Two Points: Missouri (Rep. Jim Talent (R) won by 1.1 points over incumbent Sen. Jean Carnahan (D)) and South Dakota (Sen. Tim Johnson (D) won by just 524 votes, or roughly 0.1 points over Rep. John Thune (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: Okay, so I lied above (RCP does have an average for South Dakota with Thune winning by 1.3 points and had Talent up by 5.3 points in Missouri, so obviously a bit of an under-polling of Democrats that year).  The 2002 Senate races remain some of the odder ones on this list, and a weird companion to 2004.  While in 2004 it was a bunch of Southern Democratic seats that swung to the right, giving them a number of pickups, in 2002 it was supposed to be a rough ride for the Republicans with open Senate seats throughout the South (and New Hampshire) that were vulnerable, and would have gone their way in a more traditional midterm.  But in 2002 the country was still reeling from 9/11 and the Iraq War had just started, so President Bush wasn't as toxic as he would become later in his presidency, and the Republicans were able to stave off top-flight Senate challengers like Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, and Judge Alex Sanders in open Republican seats that might have been friendlier to them in other circumstances.  The two closest races were in Missouri, where Jean Carnahan's rough first year in office (chronicled a bit more here) nearly pulled off an upset against Rep. Jim Talent when the ballots were counted (a telling sign, perhaps, that Talent wasn't living up to his name & would in fact lose in a tougher race four years later), and in South Dakota, where John Thune nearly upset Johnson, but record strength in Sioux Falls managed to keep Johnson in office for another term (though Thune would of course gain his revenge two years later and is still in office).  It's worth noting that 2002 was the last year where both Republican (Tim Hutchinson) and Democratic (Carnahan, Max Cleland) incumbents lost general elections in the same cycle, though 2018 could end that streak.

(Barely) Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
2000

Ultimate Net for Cycle:
Democrats +4
Won By Less Than Two Points: Michigan (Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D) won by 1.6 points over incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) and Washington (Rep. Maria Cantwell (D) won by 2,229 votes, or roughly 0.1 points over incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton (R))
What the Polls Were Saying: 2000 was the first year that I remember distinctly following the elections at the time of the release (I also remember about this time that my English class got LexisNexis for a week for a project, and instead of researching for said project, I spent the entire time reading Roll Call articles you needed a subscription to read about old Senate contests).  As a result, my relatively photographic memory remembers both Stabenow & Cantwell being in incredibly close races, though public polling is very difficult to come across from this time period.  It's worth noting in taking out incumbent senators they've had very fruitful careers, and are still in the Senate now (and will likely win reelection for a fourth term in 45 days).  The main scuttlebutt at the time was that the Democrats managed to win so many close Senate races despite the Republicans doing well in getting their incumbents to run.  Republicans also lost Sens. John Ashcroft, Rod Grams, and Bill Roth, and as a result the Senate was tied, and in fact the Democrats had the majority briefly from January 3rd-January 20th of 2001 before Dick Cheney became the tiebreaker.  The closest a Democrat came to taking that 51st seat was Brian Schweitzer in Montana (he'd go on to parlay his near-successful campaign against Conrad Burns into a two-term stint in the governor's mansion).  It's worth noting that Democrats criticized Sen. Joe Lieberman, the running mate of Al Gore, for not giving up his Senate seat due to his replacement being guaranteed to be a Republican (Lieberman was going to be replaced by then-Gov. John Rowland, a member of the GOP).  Lieberman, perhaps selfishly assuming A) that he needed a backup plan in case he wouldn't be VP or B) that the Senate couldn't possibly tie as the Democrats didn't seem likely to run the boards with close races, didn't care about this, and though he lost, I recall reading in US News & World Report at the time that Lieberman may have felt pressure not to give up the Senate seat, but the vice presidency, to ensure the Democrats controlled the upper chamber under a President Gore, being replaced by former President Jimmy Carter.  It was definitely in US News & World Report, but it was just speculation at the time so who knows if anything would have come from it had 538 more people voted for Al Gore.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Why the Democrats are Gaining for the Senate...But Are Not Yet Favorites

We are now less than fifty days away from the midterm elections, and like all good political pundits, I cannot shut up about it and I'm already having nightmares about potential scenarios that could play out (for the record-the amazing NYT polls that Nate Cohn is conducting live are not helping in this matter, as every day I check in and either have a minor celebration or depression party).  Today, I wanted to focus on one of the sexier questions on people's minds-will the Democrats actually take back the Senate?

The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have a strong shot at the House, though I'll cover that in the next week or so in more detail.  However, the question I get from most people, particularly in light of the Kavanaugh revelations (I haven't covered that on the blog yet mostly because it's quite clear that under normal circumstances the Republicans would have scuttled Kavanaugh's nomination by now for someone who seems qualified and wasn't a potential rapist, but the fact that they aren't makes me think that McConnell knows his majority could be in jeopardy).  The reality is, though, that the Democrats have faced long odds most of the year to win back the Senate; they are defending 24 seats, including ten seats in states where President Trump won in 2018.  Most of the year the question regarding the Senate is how well can the Democrats do in such an environment.  After all, the Senate is a game of chess, and 2020 is arguably the best map they've faced in a while, with only one clearly vulnerable incumbent (Alabama's Doug Jones) and lots of potential pickup opportunities in Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, and Georgia all on the map.

But in the past few weeks, conventional wisdom has started to shift, and it's become apparent that while the Democrats are not the favorites to take the Senate, their odds are increasing.  This is in large part due to the generic ballot for "whom people want to control Congress" swinging pretty ferociously in their direction, but it's also due to a number of micro factors.  Since we recently did a "State of the Senate," I figured I'd spell this out in a different way this morning, listing the five reasons that the Democrats should feel hopeful, alongside the five reasons that the Democrats shouldn't start popping champagne anytime soon.  Considering we're so close to the election, this could change at any moment, as scandals, new economic numbers, or simply people finally noticing there's an election going on around them could dramatically change an individual race, and with the Senate, one race might be all it takes to dash the Democrats' dreams.

The Five Reasons the Democrats' Odds Are Improving


Sens. Joe Manchin (left) and Jon Tester are all smiles these days
1. Joe Manchin & Jon Tester Seem On-Track

I have said for months that if the Democrats are going to win, they need to start taking races off of the dais and putting them in the "safe" column.  You're going to see me reference 2006 a few times in this article, and the reason for that is because 2018 looks a lot like 2006.  That year the Democrats had a really strong national tide and it was clear that they'd win the House, but around Labor Day they probably weren't going to actually win the Senate.  The Democrats, however, basically ran the boards on competitive races that year, losing only one in Tennessee, and were able to get a six-seat pickup to take back the Senate in the wee hours of the morning.  One of the ways they did that was by taking competitive races off the grid for the Republicans, meaning that "running the table" meant fewer seats than it had in the summer.

Democrats seem to be doing that in Montana and are certainly doing it in West Virginia.  Both of these states have Democratic incumbents (Tester & Manchin, respectively) who seem to be personally popular despite being in a state that Donald Trump won, and are consistently leading in polls, frequently for Manchin by double digits.  These were states that were highly-targeted by Republicans earlier this cycle, but it's difficult to see them trying for these states in October if it's clear that it's a waste of money that would be better spent in other races.  This happened in 2006, when polling showed that "competitive" states like New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were lost causes, and the table of "tossup" races wasn't in fact nine seats deep, but only six.  The Democrats copying that playbook in 2018 would be wise, and Tester/Manchin are helping them out.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
2. McCaskill, Nelson, & Donnelly Seem On-Track

There's no way that the Democrats can go into Election Night with confidence they'll win the Senate-even if they held the majority right now, that'd still be in doubt; there are too many things going well for Republicans with this map to make this anything better than a nailbiter.  That being said, the Democrats have to be happy that Claire McCaskill, Bill Nelson, and Joe Donnelly are all doing well enough to be at a tie, and in the case of the latter two particularly, the race's fundamentals seem to be leaning their direction.  Donnelly has, in particular, been the weird conundrum of the race for the majority.  A mild-mannered senator who rarely makes headlines (an issue that, say, his fellow red-state senators Joe Manchin & Claire McCaskill do not have), I initially thought he'd be the Democrats' toughest sell for 2018, considering he won at least partially due to a weak Republican opponent and he seemed to have no personal brand in the Hoosier State.  Coming two years after Evan Bayh got crushed here, it felt like Donnelly would be the toughest runner to get across-the-finish line.

That's clearly not the case.  While he's not as consistently leading in the polls as Tester & Manchin, it has to be said he's done very well in polling, sometimes even approaching double digits and even when he's behind, it's by a pittance.  Donnelly may simply have more personal popularity in Indiana than I'd given him credit for having, and that goes a long way for the Democrats.  No one's giving up on this race, and considering how notoriously stingy Indiana is with polling, I doubt that'll change before November, but Donnelly has to be considered something of a favorite by now, a crucial piece of the Democratic puzzle for November.

The other two states seem closer-on-paper, but Bill Nelson got what may be the luckiest break the Democrats will win this November when Andrew Gillum surprised and won the Democratic nomination in Florida.  Up until Gillum's victory, it seemed like Bill Nelson was running a losing campaign.  Never the most spirited campaigner, he was facing off against Gov. Rick Scott, easily the cycle's best recruit for the GOP, and it looked like a rough go for him as he was being outspent and outflanked.  But Gillum's entry into the race gives Nelson a real opportunity, because it brings out voters who might have otherwise have been apathetic about Nelson: African-Americans and Millennials.  Gillum's strength with these voters, combined with his solid polling numbers, will mean that he could well get coattails as those voters will vote for Nelson (albeit less enthusiastically), shoring up his support with harder-to-reach-demographics.  That spells out a scenario where Nelson skates to 50%.

The final race is McCaskill's, and here we have a senator who is famous with her constituents, beloved in some circles and loathed in others.  My (hot) take is that Claire McCaskill would have won in 2012 even without Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, and I think we're about to see that race play out.  Josh Hawley and McCaskill are tied in virtually every poll that comes across my Twitter feed, and while that's not great news for McCaskill, a tied race combined with the national mood is probably better for her than Hawley.  My assumption is that most genuinely tied races end up going to the Democrats on Election Day as a result of turnout as we've seen more voter engagement in primaries for Democrats than Republicans.  As a result, I'd still bet on McCaskill.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)
3. Sinema & Rosen Have Competitive Leads

Holding the incumbents are important, but if the Democrats actually want to win the Senate, they need to pick up two seats, and it's been clear all season that Arizona and Nevada are their best bets, with the Democrats banking on Reps. Kyrsten Sinema and Jacky Rosen, respectively.  So far, this has been a smart play.  Sinema, in particular, seems to have become the prohibitive favorite for the Democrats and while this race is clearly tough, this is another race that I think might be teetering away from Republicans in a way they couldn't have anticipated.  After a rough primary where she had to swing hard-right to win, Rep. Martha McSally is going extremely negative to try to take down Sinema's strength with voters, and while it might be working (she finally led in a poll recently for the first time in months), Sinema's still keeping a pretty consistent 3-5 point lead in most polls.  While that's "within the margin of error," it's pretty rare to go into Election Day losing in most polls and still win, particularly if the national environment isn't helping you out.  While I don't foresee either party pulling out of this race (the visuals, if nothing else, of the Republicans abandoning McSally will probably keep that from happening), it's entirely possible that Sinema's already got this flipped, or is darn close to doing so.

Rosen is in a tougher spot, but has also shown a thin lead in the polls.  Sen. Dean Heller is an incumbent and a better campaigner than most would give him credit for, but this state's dynamics are pretty hard for a Republican to overcome in the age of Trump (Nevada is the only Clinton-state that has an incumbent Republican running for reelection).  It's worth noting that if Rosen is essentially tied heading into Election Day (most averages have her ahead by 1-2 points), she's also probably going to win, as pollsters almost always under-poll Democrats in Nevada for some reason.  While the races are too close for Democrats to be comfortable, it seems like if the Democrats lose the Senate this fall by 1 seat, it will probably be because they couldn't carry an incumbent across the finish line, not because they couldn't score their two extra seats.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX)
4. Bredesen & O'Rourke are Gaining at the Right Time

No one anticipated the Democrats having more than two seats in play, which is a big reason why no one expected the Democrats to win the Senate.  After all, while it was mathematically easiest to go the Incumbents Win/AZ/NV route after Doug Jones surprise victory last December, politics doesn't really allow for such a clean sweep-there's almost always one race that underwhelms or where an incumbent gets into a rougher-than-expected race.  Even in 2006, that was the case where Harold Ford Jr. just couldn't overcome Bob Corker, giving the Senate Democrats their only swing state loss that year.  This year, though, two Democrats have started to emerge as plausible threats in unexpected (and very red) states, and that could provide Democrats something of an insurance policy.

The most important of these races is (sorry Beto fans) Tennessee.  Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is running a strong, frequently nostalgia-tinged campaign for the Senate against Rep. Marsha Blackburn.  Trump and the GOP are popular here, but so is Bredesen, whose personal popularity numbers, combined with lower numbers for Blackburn (who also has smaller name recognition), has a real shot as a result of his two terms as governor.  Most Democrats have been jaded by formerly popular governors making comebacks in red states (see Evan Bayh for a good example of how this goes horribly wrong), but Bredesen has led in most polls and doesn't have a presidential election to deal with like Bayh (or the personal baggage).  There's been a lot written in the past ten years about how straight-ticket voting has made the path for people like Bredesen impossible, but it's hard to look exclusively at the polls and conclude that he doesn't have something of an edge.  If he's still up 2-3 in the aggregate come Election Day, I wonder if the blue wave even hits Tennessee, which would afford Democrats some wiggle room with their incumbents.

Texas is a much longer shot, though don't tell the left that, as they've all fallen in love with Rep. Beto O'Rourke.  If this race were being fought in, say, Michigan, we'd already be writing Ted Cruz's political eulogy, but this is still Texas, and while Cruz is underperforming in the polls, he still leads by single digits on Election Day, and no one gives a rip how much you win by the day after the election, just that you have a check next to your name.  That said, O'Rourke is an unusual enough candidate and there are enough signs that he is over-performing Hillary Clinton that it's worth paying attention here.  He led in his first poll of the cycle yesterday, and there's clearly momentum for him amongst even Republicans, and it's not like Ted Cruz is a good retail politician.  The question isn't whether or not O'Rourke will out-perform your average Democrat in Texas (he will), but whether the basement for Ted Cruz is already above 50%.  If it isn't, this could be a race, but if Democrats are holding out hope for a surprise on Election Night, look to Nashville, not Dallas, for that miracle.


Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
5. None of the Great Lakes States are Going Rogue

Perhaps the Democrats' biggest advantage that no one is talking about?  How quickly they locked up all of the Obama (2012)-Trump Great Lakes states.  Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan all have Democratic incumbents that are running for reelection this cycle, and at the beginning of the cycle, many pundits started to wonder if the battle for the Senate might be shifting to their home courts, but at this point it seems clear that they are all the heavy favorites.  Bob Casey & Debbie Stabenow are assured victory, frequently leading in polls by 20-points.  Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin don't post those kinds of numbers (they're in redder states to begin with), but are oftentimes leading by high-single digit/low-double digit numbers, and even Mitch McConnell is trying to deter big Republican donors from these races (a lack of engagement on the Senate side may well give the Democrats the governorships in these states as polls are indicating, but that's an article for a different day).  The closest Great Lakes State outside of Joe Donnelly is probably Tina Smith, running her first solo campaign in Minnesota, but that's a Hillary state that has a long history of giving Democrats close-but-consistent victories, and she appears fine even if she won't win by 15-points.  It shouldn't be underestimated how important it is that the Republicans couldn't nab breakouts here.  Were one of these races still on the map, the Democrats would probably have to start packing up in Tennessee or Texas to pursue surer ground.  With these five senators looking solid, they can go for longer shots.

The Five Reasons the Democrats Aren't the Favorites


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
1. Heidi Heitkamp is Clearly in Trouble

The biggest problem with the Democrats winning the Senate stands in the area between Fargo and Williston: North Dakota.  For all of the good news the Democrats have been getting in the race for the Senate, it's quite clear that their toughest-to-win incumbent is going to be first-term Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won a surprise race six years ago in North Dakota and is going to need a similar result to keep the Senate in Democratic hands come November.  Heitkamp has struggled in polling, frequently down by low single digits, and the lack of internal poll numbers indicate she's probably seeing the same thing on the campaign trail against Rep. Kevin Cramer.  Part of Heitkamp's brand is "North Dakota Nice" making a negative campaign seem risky, but it's  her best shot as she continues, as it seems people like her, but they like Trump more (six years ago, a sly negative campaign against Rick Berg was enough to win the race for, and is her best path against Cramer).  Heitkamp has not reached the point where Democrats will abandon her, and she's still close enough where the national wave could carry her if she's only down by 1-2 points come Election Day, but Cramer is very similar to Rosen at this point for me-he's a marginal favorite, but a favorite nonetheless.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
2. They Have to Win a Lot of Close Incumbent Races

Taking Heitkamp out of the picture for a second, it's still worth noting that the Democrats have to win a lot of close races to even have a chance if she wins the contest.  McCaskill, Nelson, and Donnelly, as I mentioned above, have dynamics working in their favor, but they're still in tight races, as are Sinema and Rosen.  These five races are all essential to the Democrats-I see basically no way where they lose one of these races and keep the Senate.  That's a lot of pressure to put onto Senate contests that are so close and where in a couple of races (Heller, Scott), you could argue the Republicans have the stronger retail politician.  In 2006, the Democrats ran the table, winning all but Tennessee, but that's a hard sell and it was a time when people crossed party lines more.  It's hard to say in the era of Donald Trump if people will do that again, particularly in a midterm where the Democrats have historically struggled to get the same kind of turnout.  Tuesday night in Texas, the Democrats lost a winnable race due to low turnout, and it was a reminder that the Democrats need better turnout numbers with their core than Republicans in all five of these races, not equal.  If St. Louis voters aren't as inspired for McCaskill this year because she's too moderate or Miami voters split their votes between Gillum & Scott, then this entire endeavor falls apart.  Like I said, the best the Democrats can do is go into November with a shot-there's going to be no confidence in a Senate win until at least the Rocky Mountain states close on Election Night, but it has to be said that the Democrats need all the strength in these five races that they can muster.

Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN)
3. The Bredesen/O'Rourke/Heitkamp Paradox

But that's not the biggest reason the Democrats head into Election Night as underdogs.  Because even if McCaskill, Donnelly, Sinema, Nelson & Rosen all win  (achievable, but by no means easy), they still need one more swing seat.  Essentially the question for a few weeks has been: do you think that Phil Bredesen, Heidi Heitkamp, or Beto O'Rourke is the favorite in their race?  Because if you don't, then the Democrats have no chance of winning the Senate.  They need to take at least one of these seats in order to win.

As I detailed up above, this isn't impossible-Bredesen actually leads by a small margin in a number of polls, O'Rourke is gaining on Cruz, and Heitkamp is still a well-regarded incumbent.  But it'd hard for me to call any of them the favorite, or even the even-odds candidate in November.  Arguably Bredesen, because he continues to out-perform at the polls, is the Democrats' best hope and might well deserve to be in a tossup race, but I'm not there yet.  If I do get there, I'll say that the Democrats are a tossup for the Senate, but (at least) one of these three candidates must win for the Democrats to have the majority.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
4. Is Bob Menendez in Trouble?

Nathan Gonzales hinted about a week ago that there was a story coming about Menendez that might hurt his reelection campaigns.  I tweeted him Tuesday asking if this ended up being nothing, and he said that what "he knows" has not yet been revealed.  Regardless of this enigmatic statement from a leading political commentator, Menendez is running a race that Democrats aren't happy about; while almost every other Democratic incumbent is running as best they can in their race, Menendez's ethics problems and recent court trial, coupled with a self-funding opponent and lousy poll numbers, is clearly a problem for the Democrats.  In a more neutral cycle, we'd be seeing a clear loser here as Menendez is not well-liked and certainly benefiting from straight-ticket voters in New Jersey holding their nose, but if another chapter in his scandal breaking could lead to this being a tossup race no Democrat saw coming, and perhaps even having Chuck Schumer force a "Torricelli," getting Menendez out of the race entirely for another Democrat, as almost certainly any other first-tier Democrat could hold this seat without issue.

Rep. Mike Espy (D-MS)
5. The Mississippi of It All

This last one is worth noting mostly because it's become increasingly plausible that the Democrats end up with 50 seats on Election Night while the GOP grabs 49.  That's because the special election in Mississippi is decided by runoff, not by general election, and as a result the majority for the Senate may take weeks to figure out due to a campaign between appointed-Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (D) and former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy.  The third main candidate in the race, arch-conservative State Sen. Chris McDaniel, seems certain to take the bronze but will likely grab enough votes to keep anyone from getting 50% of the vote on Election Day, which ensures the runoff.  Espy would be a profound underdog if he were to be in this situation considering the dynamics of the state (it was heavily for Trump), but this would prolong the battle for the Senate and leave an opening for either side if their candidate were to be involved in a scandal of sorts.  It should be noted that while we've had two recent runoffs in close Senate races, neither of them were deciding the majority, and both behaved differently than the national environment.  In 2002, Sen. Mary Landrieu seemed likely to lose after the Democrats did quite poorly in the midterms that year, but she outlanked Suzie Haik Terrell after accusing Terrell of being friendly to outsourcing of sugar, a key crop in Louisiana.  On the flip side, Sen. Saxby Chambliss saw a huge swing from a 3-point lead in the November race (just barely ensuring a runoff against State Sen. Jim Martin) to a 15-point win in the runoff, despite Chambliss being a Republican in a year where Democrats dominated.  All this is to say, that if the majority for the Senate hinges on Mississippi (and it might), the Republicans would be the heavy (though not unbeatable) favorites in a runoff.  It's also worth saying, considering as I pointed above "winning the Senate is a game of chess" if this race doesn't control the majority for the Senate post-November (say the Democrats are only at 49 seats or they already hit 51),it might make the difference in 2020.  After all, who is to say that 2020 or some future race won't be decided by one vote, and that that vote might not be Hyde-Smith or Espy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Film: A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Stars: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick
Director: Elia Kazan
Oscar History: Despite being hailed as a masterpiece in recent years, at the time it received mixed reviews, and scored no nominations despite a DGA citation.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

Last month I did something I have wanted to do since it started in the Twin Cities, but never quite pulled the trigger.  Each month, my favorite theater does a "Secret Movie" night where you can buy tickets to a movie having no idea what is playing.  It's not a current film (it'll be a classic, though potentially a new classic like Dreamgirls or Memento), and it has the regular trailers followed by the film just starting.  I didn't go to the fancier version (with a Q&A and a cocktail hour), so I had, for the first time in my life, the thrill of sitting in a movie theater as if it was Christmas morning, opening a present that I didn't know the contents  It took me a few seconds as the opening whistles erupted before I saw the opening placards and realized that we were watching A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 classic that has become more culturally significant in the past few years as the film has drawn comparisons to the rise of Donald Trump (likely why the picture ended up being chosen in the first place, though I have since gone to a different secret film that had no obvious modern connection so that may have just been a coincidence).

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie starts with Marcia Jeffries (Neal), a local radio host who goes around trying to discover talent in Arkansas, interviewing a drunken drifter named Larry Rhodes (Griffith), who sings a song for her and charms the audiences with folksy humor and stories.  Rhodes becomes a hit for Jeffries, and he lands a television show under the guise "Lonesome" Rhodes, which gains a national following.  The movie progresses with Rhodes becoming an important entertainment figure with a national show, all-the-while letting the fame get to his head.  He takes advantage of his relationship with Jeffries, the only person who sees him as a good man and not an opportunist or something you can make money or gain power from, and and eventually marries a young majorette (Remick) who quickly starts an affair with Rhodes' manager, who thanks to an iron-clad contract, Rhodes can't fire.  Eventually Rhodes starts to play into politics, campaigning for someone whose politics seem very alien to the core supporters of Rhodes, but because they like Rhodes' charm and "relatability," they support this senator's bid for the presidency, knowing that if he's elected Rhodes will be put in his cabinet and could even assume greater, concrete power in America.  In the end, Jeffries trips Rhodes up while he's making disparaging remarks about his fans, making his microphone go live, and thus ending his career.  The film's final moments are Rhodes screaming into the night as Marcia hurries away, knowing that the folksy drifter she met was not the real person behind the mask, but instead it was the violent, power-hungry guy whom she revealed to the entire world.

If this sounds like a very clear portrait of Donald Trump, well, those were my thoughts too.  There's a terrific monologue that Walter Matthau gives toward the end of the picture where he says that Rhodes will eventually become famous again, but never as much as before, and it will never feel like enough.    He'll always be famous, there will be an appetite for someone who used to be famous, but it will always be smaller each time he emerges.  This feels so appropriate in this era of celebrity commodification (with endless reality shows and "celebrity" competitions), and of course it's probably true of Donald Trump.  Trump will eventually fall, and like Rhodes will never be as famous or as important again, but his specter will never entirely disappear.  But Kazan's tale has a universality that means every era could find its Lonesome Rhodes, whether it's Trump or Jimmy Swaggart or Glenn Beck or whatever peddler of lies hallmarks an era.

Even without the shocking political foresight, though, A Face in the Crowd is a marvelous film, due in many ways to the pitch-perfect performance by Andy Griffith.  Griffith, known to so many of us for his work as Andy Taylor or Ben Matlock on television, is staggering to watch as he descends into a ruthless madness.  The work here is a complete live-wire act that I didn't know he had in him, in many ways feeling like Michael Keaton in Birdman or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and even though it wasn't particularly well-regarded in 1957, it still stuns me that such work wasn't nominated for an Academy Award, as it more-than-deserved it.  Neal and Matthau are giving strong work as well, but it's Griffith and screenwriter Budd Schulberg who are doing the heavy-lifting here, making this feel vibrant, terrifying, and all-too-real some sixty years later.  It's hard to imagine all secret movie nights could be this good, as few movies can feel this pressing and classic in a first viewing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Film: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Stars: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong
Director: Jon M. Chu
Oscar History: Maybe Michelle Yeoh?  She has a showy role even if it's a pretty light film, and career honors wouldn't be out of the question for her at this point by way of a nomination.  If the Globes kick off her campaign, this could happen, and I think they might bite.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It is shocking to me, truly shocking, that we have waited 25 years since The Joy Luck Club for Hollywood to create a film that has a majority-Asian cast in a modern setting.  As a young gay man who grew up in an era where the only gay people I frequently was able to see were gay characters (played by straight actors on television) like Will Truman or Jack McPhee, I think it's worth saying right up-front, before I get into the merits of this movie, that I'm glad that this was a success.  Too often we dismiss how important films and being viewed in pop culture are, particularly for young people, and so this being a hit that resonated with audiences, and hopefully will result in more movies with diverse casts being greenlit in the future.  Now, onto my review!

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers on Rachel Chu (Wu) an economics professor at NYU who is in love with her boyfriend of a year Nick Young (Golding), who wants to take her to his best friend's wedding in Singapore.  Rachel, who apparently has no intellectual curiosity about her smoking hot, charming boyfriend (seriously-the man candy in this film is on-point, and I would think it's inappropriate to say that, but this film is a lot about objectification so I think it's worth point out), doesn't know that he's totally loaded, flying in a private lounge on their flight to Singapore, and soon learns that he's a member of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and comes with a motley crew of family members, as well as a terrifying mother, Eleanor (Yeoh), who is intent on breaking them up.  The film follows as Rachel tries to acclimate to this alien world of wealth, and seeing if she is willing to take on the responsbilities of this world and the pressures that come from a relationship with Nick.

The film's diversity is the only part of the film where we see the picture breaking the mold, as otherwise this feels like a relatively simple romantic comedy that, unfortunately, too-often forgets the comedy part of the equation, and even subtracts too much of the plot to focus on the CRAZY RICH part of the plot.  Indeed, the movie is a feast for the eyes as we move through a cascade of parties that feel too opulent to be real (they likely are, but considering what is currently in my checking account, I'll need to find a Nick Young to ever find out), and increasingly silly-seeming ways of showing obscene wealth (the wedding, in particular, feels absurd).  The wealth-porn, honestly, gets to the point where I'm like "okay, let's be done," as while Rachel doesn't put a lot of stock into this world, everyone else does, including the screenwriters and director, who only once show the downfalls of such intense, disgusting displays of wealth-porn, and even then make it seem more like the characters' faults rather than the money's.

But this would be easier to dismiss if there was more going on in the picture.  The two leads, while beautiful, don't have movie star charisma and aren't able to lift the dryness of their relationship up enough.  I honestly felt so short-changed by them, as it's clear why he likes her (she's smart, successful, self-made), but it's never clear why she likes him other than obvious aesthetic reasons.  He's lied for most of their relationship, is so dull that he's completely dismissed everything that happened before meeting Rachel, and doesn't seem to have anything to lend himself to an economics professor other than abs.  For a movie that wants so desperately for Rachel to be the one who isn't suckered by wealth, the only one who isn't, it might have a problem because Nick Young as played in this film is just a manic-pixie-dream-boy, and Rachel might be shallow in ways other than cash.

The film has too many side plots, not knowing entirely what to do with characters like Astrid (Gemma Chan, under-emoting, gives the film's best performance but the screenwriters clearly assume you read the books as she feels like we need more back story).  This isn't an isolated problem, as the screenwriters frequently assume you read the books, giving too many characters short shift or relying upon 2-dimensional portrayals of people to get their point across.  Michelle Yeoh is not an actor who you'd accuse of phoning it in, and indeed there are moments where we see the fire of a proper movie star here, but even she falls a bit when it comes to playing the dragon mother.  The movie takes on too many ideas, clearly not knowing what to cut (what was with the deeply violent fish in bed/"gold digging bitch" scene where Nick didn't have a proper reaction to it at all?!?), and didn't seem to have the confidence of knowing there'd be a big enough audience of people who'd never read the books.  As a result, this is frothy, but there's no feeling, not enough humor, and not compelling enough leads to warrant much celebration outside its important conversation regarding diversity.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Wife (2018)

Film: The Wife (2018)
Stars: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons
Director: Bjorn Runge
Oscar History: Close is beyond overdue for an Oscar at this point, and while I kind of think this might be too introverted of a turn to win, it's probable that she will be able to parlay this into at least one more nomination (getting her to seven, breaking the record for actresses without a win).
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Okay, as I said yesterday I will be spending more time getting reviews out in the next few weeks in hopes of catching up a bit in my cinematic watching habits, and so A) you'll hopefully be seeing at least one review a day from now on until I'm caught up and B) these reviews for the most part may be written several weeks in advance, so I'll try to steer clear of topical jokes, though if one of the film's stars randomly gets into a scandal and I don't catch it, cut me some flack.  As it sits, now, though, I want to first get through some of our 2018 titles, and the most recent one that I haven't reviewed yet on the blog is The Wife, a film about a woman whose husband has just won the Nobel Prize, which is getting most of its press for being the film that might (finally) land Glenn Close her Oscar.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film, as I mentioned, centers around Joan Castleman (Close), the wife of a noted novelist Joe (Pryce) who has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Obviously this is an enormous deal for the couple, and they set off for Stockholm with their son David, an aspiring writer who has a frosty relationship with his dad.  Along the way, we also meet a biographer (Slater) who is trying to find some angle into a book about Joe, likely attempting to discover something salacious or scandalous to get more sales for the author.  The film progresses with flashbacks to Joe and Joan's atypical courtship (she was his student, he was married, and he largely discouraged her from continuing to write), and we learn secrets about their marriage and both of their careers.

These secrets are the quintessential component of the film, and in my opinion are what largely makes-or-breaks the picture.  There are hints throughout, in my opinion hints that are not subtle enough to make it feel like a surprise later in the film, when we realize that Joan has been the ghost author of Joe's works.  In an effort to appease her young husband's ego, and because she believes the sexism of the era precludes her from being considered a serious writer by the "men who make such decisions" Joan hides her talent under her husband's name, giving him all of the glory in hopes of a happy marriage and life together.  As the movie progresses, we get a complicated look at what we're willing to give up to feel loved and to keep the people we love happy.

That's about the best spin I can put on The Wife, to be honest, as the movie is far more intriguing to discuss it's plot than the actual execution.  It doesn't help that Jonathan Pryce doesn't telegraph as a character we can have any sympathy for at all, and I struggled with understanding what Joan would see in him through the years (him as a young man, handsome, brooding, and her filled with no confidence made more sense than her as an adult woman, clearly aware that her writing talent was unparalleled considering the success of Joe's career).  This lack of understanding made most of Close's big moments in the second half fall flat to me.  Close hasn't been this good in decades, playing an introverted character well in a way I wouldn't have anticipated for an actress that is most known for her big expressions and larger-than-life characters such as Cruella de Vil or Alex de Forrest.  Joan has pretended in every aspect of her life for so long (lying to everyone, even herself, about what she and her husband have perpetrated), that even her cries to Joe for sympathy or credit feel like she's choosing her words carefully, playing a part because that young woman who once saw promise in her art died years ago.  It's a hard part to play, and Close wisely plays her as someone unknowable to the audience throughout.  I just wish the movie had had such subtlety, attempting to be 45 Years in its best parts but more frequently ending up too impatient and too generic to achieve something so special.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Why I'll Probably Never See The Room

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend, and as most of my conversations do at one point or another, my thoughts turned to the movies.  As this friend is also a cinephile, we discussed movies that we had never seen and somehow The Room came up, a film that I have never seen.  He was shocked, considering it plays at the theater we were about to go to nearly every single month, that I hadn't seen it, and asked if I was ever going to watch it, and my quick reply of "no" was equally puzzling to him.  It also, it should be noted, puzzled me for a second.  Two of the principle beliefs of my film education have been that "every movie is worth seeing at least once" and "I never regret seeing a movie, even if I didn't like it"...so why was I so quick to dismiss ever seeing The Room?  The answer to this question I wanted to discuss here, and talk a little bit about what my cinematic mind has been doing for the past few weeks as I prep for the fall and winter, when arguably I see the most movies in any given calendar year (either at home or otherwise).

The Room, for those unfamiliar, is a cult film directed by Tommy Wiseau, and gained a lot of attention recently with the James Franco feature The Disaster Artist, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars (and which I did see).  The film is frequently lambasted as one of the worst movies ever made, bordering on the incoherent, and has only gained notoriety due its low quality & Wiseau's bizarre, enigmatic off-screen behavior.  Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a film I have also seen, though not in theaters), it has interactive moments during its midnight screenings, and is seen as an event by ardent fans of the picture.  It's also, like Rocky Horror, considered something of a "bad movie night" sort of screening, which have become increasingly popular in the past decade with home screenings of crappy, under-known titles from the past forty years.

Normally I'd subscribe to The Room as being a film I should see just so that I can be a proper, unbiased authority on my opinion of it, particularly considering its place in the zeitgeist.  I might like it, or appreciate it ironically (though I'll be real here-I am not someone who appreciates things ironically very often), but another article keeps swimming around in my head, one that I've become obsessed with and have forced everyone I know to read despite its gargantuan length: a piece by Kate Hagen about her "search for the last great video store" which talks about how we're in a potential "erasure" of cinema akin to the Silent Era, where thanks to legal reasons, lack of venues, and a sole focus on maximizing profits for studios, many movies may never be seen by new generations of filmgoers due to lack of interest.

The Room connects with this argument in part because I realized while reading it something I know subconsciously but never really think about in a tangible, actual way: there are more movies currently out than I ever will be able to see.  I have a lifelong goal of seeing every narrative, feature-length, Oscar-nominated film ever made for the Oscar Viewing Project, but this is hardly the only film-watching project I want to embark upon in my life, and isn't the only film-watching project I'm embarking upon currently.  And yet the OVP, which I've made tremendous progress on through the years, has exactly 2089 titles left just for me to see alone, even after seeing thousands of nominated films (or the fact that the Oscars come out with new nominated titles every single year).  If I watched every single one of these films every single night (forgoing any sort of social life, romantic life, sex life, vacations, or just watching other movies), I could finish this in six years, but that's not practical or plausible.  And even then, I'll be into my forties, and we have a finite amount of time on this earth.

After all, in recent years I've become intrigued by the "body of work" articles that different people on Twitter I follow seem so intrigued by.  People like Nick Davis who watch an entire lineup at Cannes or Catherine Stebbins who has been profiling dozens of movies from 1949 she has never seen in hopes of shoring up years she's "weak" on to better flesh out her film knowledge of that particular year.  The Film Experience is currently watching every single live-action film that Meryl Streep has ever appeared in, since apparently it's at 52 right now.  These all sound like amazing projects that I'd love to emulate with my own favorites (or copy them verbatim just to play along).  But time is a precious thing, and you can't hit a pause button on your life to try and catch up to where you wish your life was.

I haven't been watching films as much this summer on home video, and I'll admit that.  Part of that has to do with moving to a new house and enduring a new job that is more taxing on my time than my previous one (even though it's challenging in a fun way).  Most of that, though, is being daunted by the blog (it's hard to keep up with reviewing every picture, and I like more-and-more having these little capsules of what I think of different films, actors, and directors because the work of Davis, Stebbins, Hagen, and Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience all inspire me to continue to find new avenues to further my film education).  As a result, because it's holding me back from seeing movies, my big personal project for the next week is going to get as many of these film reviews out of my "drafts" file as is personally possible to at least eliminate this roadblock.  I find that in life we spend so much time imagining our goals that we never actually achieve the ones that deadlines (work-related, home improvement-related) or society (spouse, kids, retirement) force upon us with pressure. I'm usually pretty good on that, but as you might have noticed from the near lack of reviews from pre-2018 this summer (and the fact that so many 2018 releases like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and Solo: A Star Wars Story that I've referenced elsewhere still don't have reviews), I'm clearly behind and need to get caught up if I don't view each new movie with dread because it's adding to my mountain of film reviews left untyped.

But that doesn't solve the problem of The Room, and I think I'm vowing that I'll probably never see it, and I'm comfortable with that.  "All movies are worth seeing," but not all of them are worth prioritizing.  Wiseau's vision, as robustly awful as it seems to be, doesn't need to be a priority, as there's nearly always a movie that I have easy access to that I will want to see before catching it.  This may be a philistine attitude, and my inner-curiosity may get to me at some point, but I view it more as pragmatism.  In my life, I'll likely continue the quest to see as many movies as is humanly possible while also still having a life, and will hopefully be blessed with enough years to get through as many movie projects as I possibly can.  But we can't see it all, and if that means occasionally I won't have a frame-of-reference for the "worst movie ever made," I think I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Little Stranger (2018)

Film: The Little Stranger (2018)
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

"A little slow" is not an insult that I usually care about when it comes to movies.  Generally, I find that I have more patience for the cinema than your average moviegoer, and am at home with moody silences, muted stares, and plots that reveal all but do so in a subtle way.  Knowing this, I ignored some of the more negative reviews of The Little Stranger, Lenny Abrahamson's followup to Room, the latter of which he was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.  After all, it stars Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, and in particular Charlotte Rampling, none of whom is a slouch when it comes to the art of acting, and the trailers had a lot of promise.  The film, though, short changes its leading man when it comes to the script, and suffers from, well, being a bit slow, alas proving that I have a tolerance for, but am not immune to, such criticisms.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film takes place in the late forties, right after World War II, but you'll be forgiven for assuming that it occurs in an earlier century, as so much of the film is about the fall of the class system in Great Britain.  We see Dr. Faraday (his first name is never mentioned in the picture from what I can remember, a sign you'll realize is foreboding as the movie continues), played by Gleeson, coming to call on a young maid who is pretending to be sick because she hates working in Hundreds Hall, a once magnificent 18th century mansion that has fallen into disrepair, much like its family.  The three remaining owners of the house are Angela Ayres (Rampling), a monarch that still thinks she's living before the first war, her more modern daughter Caroline (Wilson), and Roddy (Poulter), the technical owner of the house who lives in the outskirts of society because he was badly burned and disfigured during his time in the war.  All of the characters are haunted by the memory of Angela's first daughter Susan, who died in 1919 and was clearly Angela's favorite child.

The film progresses with a series of unusual, and occasionally unexplained instances occurring in the house, especially to the three living members of the Ayres Family.  A girl visiting them is disfigured by a seemingly sweet-and-kind dog, then Roddy goes mad and starts burning down their library.  All-the-while, it appears that Faraday is going to be romantically involved with Caroline, to the point where she eventually becomes engaged to him, but it's clear she doesn't love him and he becomes harder & crueler as the movie progresses.  The class system also is at-play, though Abrahamson's gentle touch with the story doesn't have him spell it out for the audience.  Even though Faraday is an up-and-comer and promising figure in his medical field and Caroline lives in a rundown house, the social cues of the time still put her in a place of privilege that he cannot reach thanks to her name and birth.  Faraday becomes increasingly controlling, wanting to force Caroline into picking a date or even have sex with him, but her resistance makes him furious.  Gleeson, the best part of the movie, does a superb job of not entirely letting us see the misogynist within until Caroline starts to realize it, and at that point Susan's "ghost" has reared its head.

The film's final twenty minutes, where we'd expect most of the big horror movie moments (either Susan being truly real or realizing that Faraday is intentionally inflicting pain upon the Ayres Family as retribution for denying him his expected place in high society) don't happen.  A sly scene about poltergeists that feels a bit out-of-place (it likely should have occurred earlier in the film so as not to completely show the screenwriter's hand) proves that it is Faraday's younger self who is torturing the family in various fashions, taking the manifestation of the thing that torments them each the most, and implying heavily that he has been around since Susan saw him misbehave and be slapped by his mother as a child, perhaps even claiming her as his first victim.  It's clever, but underdone, just like the movie.  Subtlety occasionally falls into the trap of boredom, and while Gleeson & Wilson are giving nuanced work, it doesn't save us from the length of the picture or the unanswered questions from the film's middle, particularly the way the script doesn't quite know what to do with Roddy (Poulter is giving the weakest performance in the film, being asked to play a more bombastic character while not showing all of the reveals too early in the picture).  All-in-all, there's clearly promise here, but it doesn't quite have the confidence or the crisp ending that a film that favors style, mood, and simplicity can get away with without risking a dull middle.