Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Film: A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Bruhl
Director: Anton Corbijn
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

There are occasionally festival titles that slip quietly into the dark.  They have that aura of important but not quite going to score at the Oscars or other awards ceremonies.  Therefore, they would normally be relegated to On Demand and randomly show up in your Netflix "we recommend" list but only the most loyal of theater patrons would catch it (the retired people who see a matinee four times a week and the like...the people I hope to be when I retire).

However, on occasion something happens to make a particular film noteworthy, which is what happened when Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away earlier this year, making A Most Wanted Man not some random John le Carre adaptation with strong reviews but little buzz, but instead the final leading role of one of the most celebrated actors of his generation.  Hoffman's presence in this film gives it an interesting anecdotal footnote, and while he has the final Hunger Games films left, this is likely his last significant acting contribution.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film takes a while to get off the ground.  Like John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this is a film for the mind, not just for the senses, and unlike your average spy and espionage thriller, you're left with very few action sequences (which makes the final scene a bit jarring, but in a good way because it's the only truly quick moment in the movie).  However, unlike Tinker, I don't feel like this film quite joins the great pantheon of spy thrillers.

The problem may lie in the casting, to be honest.  Hoffman is brilliant as a man shut off from society for decades, spending his lifetime trying to track terrorists and devoting all of himself to a job that will eventually spit out his soul after chewing on it for a few decades.  Rachel McAdams, though, is fatally miscast.  Of all of the bad German accents in the film, hers is the worst (Daniel Bruhl, I feel, should have done a bit more coaching with the cast).  I personally feel like McAdams has made a career of bad decisions onscreen, frequently going dramatic when her chops are comedic, and quite frankly, I don't think I've ever seen a film where she was actually any good except for Mean Girls.  That continues with this particular film, where she's out of her element against Dafoe and Hoffman, both of whom are able to be subdued without becoming washed out (something McAdams seems incapable of doing).

It's also worth noting that the setup to the film isn't as strong as Tinker (which is admittedly a bit unfair-Tinker being Le Carre's magnum opus novel), as the first thirty minutes the film seems to have started almost fifteen minutes into the movie.  This sometimes happens when the audience (read: me) isn't as familiar with what is going on onscreen, but I have a feeling that this was also a bit in the delivery as there is little to no character introduction in the opening scenes except with McAdams' character, and Hoffman's character is operating entirely in his world of shadows, so he doesn't quite need the unknowable aspect of his Bachmann that we get to start the movie.

Still, though, the last thirty minutes are an extremely intense ride, and makes you re-evaluate the way that you handle the nameless faces that appear in front of you on CNN and in the papers.  We spend an entire film with a man who has been arrested and tortured and appears innocent, and then slips quietly into the night at the end of the film in an act of extraordinary rendition.  It is haunting in the way that someone can slip quietly into the night, little to no justice, forever gone.  It's a truly memorable ending, particularly the final moments with Hoffman's Bachmann returning to work, realizing that what he does can never change the course of history in a real way, and that he has resigned himself to potentially being one of the bad guys.

Those were my thoughts on this interesting, though not quite marvelous movie.  What were yours?  Do you also feel that the film improved as it went along?  Do you think this is a strong final note for Hoffman's career (even if we all would have preferred it happening much later)?  And what are your general thoughts on Rachel McAdams and her bizarrely sporadic career?  Share in the comments!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

4 Thoughts on Yesterday's Primaries

With only one more primary to go, this is the penultimate of our long series on the 2014 primaries.  Like always, here are my thoughts coming out of last night's elections in Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma.

Patrice Douglas (R-OK)
1. Republican Women Continue to have a Mixed Cycle

There is little doubt that Republican women have had a bit of a mixed cycle this year in terms of success at the ballot box.  Republicans currently have major candidates like Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito looking more and more likely to join the Senate in January, but in the House the bag has been a bit more convoluted.  In Arizona last night, Republicans got two female challengers, one anticipated to win (Martha McSally was not a question mark in Arizona-2) and one that was less certain (Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers in Arizona-9 emerged victorious to run against Democratic Rep. Krysten Sinema).  Both of these seats are going to be tough races in November and both women could win, though neither is a lock for the Republicans and could stay with Democrats.

In the one open primary seat that was a certain win for the Republicans, the female candidate got clobbered.  In Oklahoma's open fifth district, the Republicans decidedly went against State Corporations Commissioner Patrice Douglas in favor of State Sen. Steve Russell.  This is indicative of a larger problem that the GOP has been having with vulnerable or open seats-female candidates are seen as great challengers in tossup or underdog elections, but when it comes to open seats that are certain locks for the Republicans (which make up the vast majority of their seats in the Congress), women cannot seem to find much success.  This is also true in the Senate, where women either didn’t run or didn’t win states like Georgia, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, but they are being leaned on heavily by the GOP in Obama-states like Iowa, Michigan, and Oregon.

2. The Florida GOP Didn't Have Another Cliff Stearns

Two years ago, one of the biggest upsets of the cycle happened when 12-term incumbent Rep. Cliff Stearns was blindsided in the primaries by now Rep. Ted Yoho.  This year, all incumbents won in Florida, and the preferred Republican candidates won in the two most competitive seats for the GOP.  Miami Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo will face vulnerable Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia in the 26th district and State Rep. Carl Domino will campaign against freshmen Rep. Patrick Murphy in the 18th.  The 26th was of particular note because former Rep. David Rivera was running such an unconventional campaign (he “dropped out” but was still on the ballot and stealthily campaigning), and I personally was curious to see if that would work considering his name recognition in the state.  Democrats have only one really competitive seat in the state in the second district, but Gwen Graham (daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham) wasn’t in a competitive primary and will now sail into the general election.

State Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ)
3. Emily List has Another Rough Night

As I mentioned above, the Republicans have had a pretty mixed bag this year with recruitment and victories for female candidates, but Democratic women haven't been universally victorious either.  Democrats of course generally run more female candidates, and that is definitely the case again this year, but in competitive primaries Emily's List has not done particularly well this cycle (they have a host of candidates in the general elections that they will campaign for, likely including recent Montana Senate candidate Amanda Curtis, who will surely get an endorsement).

Following tough losses in Pennsylvania and Hawaii earlier this year came another big loss for Emily's List with County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox losing her primary to State Rep. Ruben Gallego.  Like Douglas above, this was a safe seat and not a question mark for the incumbent party, so Gallego will surely win the general election.  Emily's List of course has a number of major races in November across almost every level of government (Democrats have nominated a lot of women), but they will likely be doing soul-searching in their primaries after this year, as it's been a rougher road than in the past.  They have one last major primary left in Rhode Island for governor, where their backed candidate (State Treasurer Gina Raimondo) is in a tight threeway race with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, grandson of former Sen. Claiborne Pell.

4. Democrats Get Their Opening in Arizona

The Tea Party scored a late-in-the-year victory in Arizona, where State Treasurer Doug Ducey emerged victorious from a very contested primary, beating incumbent Jan Brewer's preferred candidate.  While Ducey goes into the race the favorite, he hasn't polled particularly well against Democrat Fred Duval, former Chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.  Considering that Democrats have been doing oddly well in red state gubernatorial races this year (see also Kansas), this isn't a far-fetched race and if the polls continue to be marginal, may be revisited by the DNC and DGA.

And those are all of my thoughts.  In a few weeks we finish off the primaries, but in the meantime-what did you think of last night's elections?  Any surprises that left you stymied?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Is Hillary the Right Choice for 2016?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)
Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee for President, because the Democrats won't accept anything else.  At this point, the Democrats have painted themselves into such a corner with Hillary that her not running would be earth-shattering, the equivalent to when LBJ and RFK were both out of the 1968 presidential race and the Democrats were left with the remains of who would be their nominee.  Clinton has the name recognition, the political backing of almost everyone of significance in the Democratic Party (including people who were fervent supporters of President Obama six years ago), and quite frankly she clearly wants to be the president.

However, the question that has been on my mind in the past few months during Clinton's questionable book tour and subsequent interviews is whether or not this is really the best plan for the Democrats.  I will admit before the article begins that if I were a Democratic consultant, I would definitely be advising for Hillary, as she's so clearly the strongest option in part because everyone keeps saying she is, but she's started to show severe vulnerabilities on a couple of points that she's going to need to shore up if she wants to become the 46th president.  Let's go through them below.

1. She Seems Unwilling to Correct Past Mistakes

Hillary has shown on the campaign trail (and let's not kid ourselves-the book tour and the recent series of interviews have been a proxy campaign for president) that she is not willing to change a number of her past mistakes.  She comes across as very distant when she's answering a question this is likely more an attack than a legitimate question on policy.  Compare that to someone like Paul Ryan or Elizabeth Warren (or especially Bill Clinton) and her body language doesn't instantly become relaxed, but instead quite tense and you see that this is someone who is still uncomfortable with the nastiness that comes with a campaign.  This may have been increased in recent years with her working at Foggy Bottom, which is largely non-partisan and where she was universally celebrated.

She's also not taking enough risks.  This is early in the campaign, and yet she's not reaching out to newer staff members and former Clinton enemies (the Clinton's famed long memories need to be erased immediately if she's going to get serious help from vital 2008 Obama supporters), she's not doing unfriendly interviews, and she's not hocking her book in unfriendly territory.  Her entire book tour looks like it was done in October of 2016-all friendly journalists, friendly states, and friendly audiences, so there is no risk of a tricky question or an awkward moment.  This is 2014-go on FOX News or do an intense interview with a hardcore political journalist like Chuck Todd or Dana Bash.  If the only reason you're avoiding these things is because you don't want to announce you're campaigning for president before the Midterms, at least show some playfulness like you did with the Hillary meme a few years back-go on a late night talk show and participate in a Jimmy Fallon skit.  Prove to Democratic voters that you learned that a tightly-run but rigid campaign is not what you're going to do in 2016 like you did in 2008.

2. She's Not a Team Player

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (right) hitting the campaign trail
with West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant
If you were to ask me the single biggest blunder of Barack Obama's presidency it would not be the poor rollout of the healthcare law or Benghazi or even some of the recent issues in the Ukraine and Middle East (or even his lack of action on climate change)-it would be the way that he was far too isolated from Congress and from supporting his fellow Democrats.  President Obama should have seen from the truly hateful way that the 2008 campaign turned out and the way that Mitch McConnell received him into office that the game had changed, and there are no longer friendly players on the other side of the aisle, and started to hit the ground harder for Democratic candidates.  In 2010 and 2012, President Obama didn't spend enough time on the campaign trail stumping for other candidates or raising mountains of money (he has admittedly, learned this in 2014 but it's largely too late for him now).  President Obama using his political machine and exciting the base in states like Ohio and Florida in 2010 may well have kept the Democrats in control of key redistricting states and given them a chance to win back the House in 2012, and had he helped marginal Senate races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Nevada in recent years (all states he won twice, and by healthy margins) we wouldn't be discussing the loss of the Senate as a possibility this year.

What does this have to do with Hillary Clinton?  Everything, because as has been proven the past four years you can no longer just win the White House-you have to win both houses of Congress too, and you have to be willing to look out for more than just yourself to be successful.  You are no longer running just for the spot of Commander in Chief-you're also supposed to be running to get as many allies in Washington and across statehouses and state legislatures as you can, and Hillary has been wildly reluctant to campaign.  Her husband proved in 2012 what an asset a campaign stop from a Clinton can be, and there are Democrats like Pat Quinn, Bruce Braley, and Dan Malloy who would be dying to have Hillary stop by for a boost.  And one stop at Tom Harkin's steak fry is not enough.

Her potential 2016 opponents certainly realize that she's made herself incredibly vulnerable on this front.  Joe Biden has made a point of appearing at dozens of fundraisers across the country for state parties and for Democratic candidates, and has done it with little calculation over whether or not the candidates have a decent shot of winning.  It was recently reported that Biden has been out for people like Kevin Strouse in Pennsylvania and Jim Mowrer in Iowa-neither of which is at the top of the DCCC's best candidates list, but Biden is doing his part simply getting out with voters and helping marginal Democrats raise money.  Elizabeth Warren has done a phenomenal job of this, getting out and campaigning hard for her fellow senators and candidates for open and Republican seats.  And Martin O'Malley has taken every chance he can to score points for Democrats across the country (particularly, of course, in early primary states).  The thing that makes me the most nervous about casting a vote for Hillary in a primary is that I don't want someone who doesn't realize the importance of winning more than the White House to be our nominee.

3. She's not liberal enough

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential problem for Hillary in 2016
This is the last and possibly the strangest of the three titles, because Hillary Clinton is generally considered to be a fairly progressive candidate, but in some ways she hasn't kept up with the changing face of the Democratic Party.  The Party has become far more dove-ish in recent years, and Clinton's approach to foreign policy seems too interventionist and seems to reflect John McCain more than it does the modern Democratic Party (and it's not 2000 anymore-thanks to Jon Stewart and 2008, Democrats loathe John McCain now).  She's also far friendlier to Wall Street and doesn't remotely have the credentials for the Occupy wing of the Democratic Party to avoid them having a wandering eye.

This may be Hillary's biggest obstacle.  She can probably win the nomination even if she has a few gaffes because very serious candidates will not run.  Her lack of running as a big ticket Democrat won't hurt her in winning the White House (it'll just stop her from being productive in the White House).  This, though, could be a serious obstacle due to three people: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Rand Paul.

Warren has insisted that she isn't going to run for president, period, but in politics people make a living out of denying that they are running for president...and then run for president.  Warren is a huge problem for Hillary because the comparisons between the two are pretty stark and easy to make.  I already highlighted what a team player Warren is, but she's also someone that the base is absolutely infatuated with right now.  She is able to draw a thick line between herself and the Obama administration that is quite believable, and has been able to find a populist message that appeals across party lines when it comes to the banks and unfairness in the tax code.  It's also a message where she still can raise boatloads of money and doesn't have any issues with the Republicans trying to steal her popular message.  Even if she doesn't run, the ghost of Elizabeth Warren and what could be in four years hangs over Hillary's campaign in 2016.

Bernie Sanders has started to make waves by visiting early primary states and making direct attacks on Hillary.  Sanders is not a serious candidate for president-unlike Warren, there's little to no chance he would ever win the nomination or the White House.  However, he could make life hell for Hillary in 2016, particularly since she's going to have to stake out pretty liberal stances in order to combat him embarrassing her by outperforming in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There's also the chance that Sanders would run to her left in the general election as a third party candidate (he is an independent in the Senate), which would almost certainly give the White House to the Republicans.  Hillary needs to find some way to appease Sanders on the campaign trail in order to stop him from becoming "a thing."

Finally, there's Rand Paul, who is far more dove-like than Hillary, and while I think his recent comments that Democrats would abandon Hillary if he were the nominee are a bit presumptive (and have a flip side in that Chamber of Commerce-style Republicans would probably go blue if he were the nominee against Hillary), he has a point.  He's the only Republican option that seems somewhat viable as someone who could break open some long-held demographic lines that the Republicans have been desperate to overcome.  There's a reason that Paul is being talked about in the media for addressing Howard University and for his shockingly progressive stance on the recent protests in Ferguson-this is something we haven't seen from a Republican in a while, and that makes him a wild card-how will America react?

So, do I think that Hillary will be the Democratic nominee in 2016?  Yes.  Do I think that's the right decision?  Probably.  But do I think that the Democrats should be very worried about these three points regarding their presumed frontrunner?  Absolutely.  Hillary Clinton cannot be the candidate she was in 2008 and win the presidency-she's going to have a much harder time this cycle in the general than Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, and she needs to run a changed campaign to reflect that.  She needs to get in touch with Democratic voters of today and not eight years ago (when it was all about not being Bush) and she needs to get out and start campaigning for more Democrats because winning both branches is what the reality of today's Washington is.  She does these three things, and I think it's time to start measuring the drapes.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Giver (2014)

Film: The Giver (2014)
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Taylor Swift, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift
Director: Phillip Noyce
Oscar History: None
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I am not one of those people that think that you have to literally translate an entire book onto the screen.  Novels and movies are completely different and disconnected things, and should be treated differently.  This is why I wasn't overly concerned when word came that The Giver greatly differentiated from its original source material.  It's not the sort of book that would move to the cinema in a strong way-it's too cerebral, too talk-y.  It's the sort of thing, quite frankly, that Showtime would make a solid miniseries out of and that's probably the way that the film should have gone...

(Spoilers Ahead) Because even if you're going to only loosely base your film on the book that is your original, you still need to have a successful movie, and that's just not the case here.  It's time to just rip the bandage off for lovers of Lois Lowry's classic Newberry-winner: this is a truly bad movie.  I'm not entirely sure where to begin-perhaps with the plot.  The actual plot in the book is essentially a coming-of-age story for an eleven-year-old boy who must realize the world is a more dangerous and haunting place than what he was raised to know.  It spends much of its time focused on his learning about the world and his relationship with the Giver, with his childhood focuses slowly slipping away for something more meaningful.

The film, though, casts the 24-year-old Brenton Thwaites to play an eighteen-year-old, and I'm sorry to say this gets lost in translation.  Thwaites doesn't really appear to be eighteen (he's not a Stacey Dash style actor who can play that age indefinitely), and so he's already had a disconnect with the audience.  Admittedly he has lived in a deeply sheltered life, but it seems jarring to think that someone so old would know so little about the motives of people, and he approaches everything as if he is still eleven.  It wouldn't be so bad, except he has a deeply suspicious and ultra-cautious mother (Holmes) and shouldn't that have rubbed off on him as well?  It seems odd that he is so alarmingly unconnected from his mother and it hasn't rubbed off on his personality.

The overall plot, in fact, is pretty rudimentary.  There's little question of exactly whether Jonas will succeed (even for a summer blockbuster the roadblocks to his victory seem pretty ancillary), and he's given too little understanding onscreen to make the fact that he leaves so quickly believable.  Quite frankly, this character doesn't appear to be special or smart enough to deserve to be the new Receiver of Memories, and the fact that he's the "chosen one" becomes a giant yawn.  The entire final third of the film loses all of its poignancy because the film has been so predictable that we know exactly what's about to happen to every single character onscreen.

The biggest flaw, though, isn't the plot.  Movies have successfully managed quite predictable stories for years without much issue (Julia Roberts has made a career out of them).  The problem is the actors.  This is one of the worst cast films I have seen in years, and that's coming from a movie with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.  It says something that neither Bridges nor Streep are particularly good in this movie (Bridges is too dormant and rarely adds anything majestic to his Giver, Streep plays this with villainous snarls that emulate Miranda Priestley as an overlord...but not in a good way), and yet you're dying whenever they aren't onscreen.  At least both of them can act and add some sort of depth into what they're doing.  The rest of the cast it feels like they're reading from cue cards.  Brenton Thwaites is gorgeous, but is the human equivalent of an Ambien.  Even worse is Odeya Rush as his love interest, which may well be her name as she literally is just there to reflect his choices and not actually to do anything on her own.  It may be callous, but the entire climactic scene where she's about to die would have been a lot more compelling if we remotely cared about her character.  And of course there's Katie Holmes, who's got the darting look down right (I kind of wonder with her giant doe eyes and mastery of "emotion" faces if she would have worked well in the Silent Era) but every time she opens her mouth it's like grating against a chalkboard it's so one-dimensional.  I never thought I'd say this about a movie, but Taylor Swift actually adds something we're so bland at that point; though she only gets a cameo, she actually has a personality even if she's not a strong actor, and brings some life out in Bridges (more than the main character ever does).  The filmmakers smartly make most of the speeches during the climax by making them entirely between Streep and Bridges (perhaps by then they had realized what a serious error they had made in Thwaites and Rush?), but it's too little, too late, and not even two of the greatest actors of their generation can save us from this dreck.

Those were my thoughts on the awful Giver-what were yours?  Did you also feel like the true horror in this film was the casting, or are you a novel-loyalist who is wondering where the sunburn memory is?  Where does Brenton Thwaites go from this massive flop?  And what film do you think Streep and Bridges should do together under the more watchful eye of a better director (it would be a shame if this were the only movie they ever made together)?  Share in the comments!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

OVP: Sound Mixing (2013)

OVP: Best Sound Mixing (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro, Captain Phillips
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, and Chris Munro, Gravity
Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, and Tony Johnson, Inside Llewyn Davis
Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, and David Brownlow, Lone Survivor

My Thoughts: We’ve taken a brief sabbatical from the 2013 Oscar races, but we are now back in for the final stretch, finishing up where we left off in the middle of the sound categories.  Like many years, the sound categories ended up being nearly identical to each other (making writing back-to-back articles about both of them a bit of a chore, hence the slight delay between the two).  For those that need to get caught up, click at the bottom for past Sound Mixing articles and some of our previous 2013 races.

But on with the show, and what a show this was-honestly, this is by far the best lineup of 2013, as there are no really bad contenders to speak toward.  I’ll start with the film that continues to surprise in me in how well it holds up, Lone Survivor.  I’ve talked about this a couple of times, but the sound work in this film is really incredible.  The overall movie knows exactly how to play with volume in a way that heightens at the precise right moments.  So many war films turn up the volume and leave it there, but Lone Survivor plays with tones, giving us far more tension and a natural quiet during the scenes in the woods, even breaking up the occasional battle scenes with the crinkling of branches and walking.  It’s a really well-made picture, and one that probably got thrown out by some art house-style patrons because of the subject matter and presence of Wahlberg in the starring role.

After missing the year before, I was perplexed to see The Hobbit amongst the nominees, not because of a lack in quality but because The Hobbit seems to have now entered Harry Potter or Star Wars territory, where it always seems to be nominated for something but never for the same things-who knows what Five Armies will get this year?  The sound work in these films is always divine.  It helps that Howard Shore has a truly mesmerizing theme that haunts the work, and the film is constantly finding prickly ways to keep you glued aurally to the screen-I love the spiders in this particular piece, and the way that even conversations take on a new majesty with the way the score drops but frequently accompanies soliloquies.  All-in-all, another great installment in an extremely memorable series.

Captain Phillips continues to baffle me in terms of quality-I’ve said this twice now, but the middle third of the film continues to be where everything is working, and that includes the sound.  The crashing of the water becomes both terrifying in its constancy and closeness and yet there’s something calming in the way that the main ship speeds by-it’s a weird conundrum for the audience and one of several aural quandaries that highlight the film.  I don’t care for the final third, where the noise (and script) become sanctimonious and muddled in their message-the sound and speaking becomes too underlined on the lines the director wants you to pay attention toward and you don’t feel the naturalism.  But the middle parts of the film (particularly the first unsuccessful pirate attempt on the ship) are truly excellent.

Gravity of course is a sound mixers dream, getting the chance to do some near perfect sequences that exist largely based on the rush of sound around Sandra Bullock’s tragic astronaut.  We are given long stretches of film where it’s either just Bullock or just a pair of actors, and so sound and its frequent absence are critical to maintaining the illusion of space and the impending tension that would come with each swirling cascade of debris.  The movie balances its highs and lows and finds ways to make Bullock’s breathing even more uncomfortable for the audience, making us practically hyperventilate in unison in our seats.  A lovely triumph.

The final nominee, and the only nominee that didn’t get a doppelganger nomination over in Sound Editing is Inside Llewyn Davis.  Because of the obvious need for strong sound work during onscreen performances, musical pictures usually do quite well in this category.  However, Llewyn Davis doesn’t fall into the sad pattern of only being interesting when the band has stopped playing onscreen.  Instead, it has a delicate quiet that casts a shadow over the entire film, so that we can hear the wooden floorboards and the hum of a mellower, less commercial New York.

Of course, when the music actually starts playing, we hit perfection.  The music plays as if it is live, and you are genuinely in a studio recording or the back of a bar listening to a man bare his soul.  The actual singing is heavenly, and frequently has an authenticity that is lacking in larger-scale more recent musicals that are so quick to make something perfect that they forget to make it interesting.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a wonderful selection here, and while I would have put it in a few more categories with Oscar, there’s no denying that the two citations it did grab were well-earned.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Cinema Audio Society started breaking out its live-action and animated contenders a few years ago, so we have two sets of nominees to run through.  The live action categories are almost a carbon copy of Oscar’s list, with only The Hobbit being taken down for Iron Man 3 (Gravity was victorious).  In the Animated field we had everyone’s favorite pair of princesses taking down The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, and Walking with Dinosaurs.  Gravity was also the victor at the BAFTA Awards, with The Hobbit and Lone Survivor both being taken out for All is Lost and Rush.  I am going against the grain here and assuming that, considering that Rush was so poorly-taken with AMPAS that either Frozen or All is Lost (probably the latter) was the sixth place nominee.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I hate to go there again, but what was with the weird aversion to the handsome if occasionally staid work that made up Man of Steel.  Once again I think I would have found room for it, but to be honest this is a very strong list and doesn’t have a lot of need for improvement.
Oscar’s Choice: Once again, there was no denying Gravity for a trophy.
My Choice: This is a genuine tossup for me between Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis.  I think that Gravity is probably whom I would have to vote for in a bubble (realizing that I’ve given it an alarmingly high number of trophies so far but admitting it’s slightly the better of the two even with a high awards count), but both of these are five-star pieces of work.  I’m going to follow that with Lone Survivor, The Hobbit, and Captain Phillips bringing up the rear.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Do you think that Gravity is the unstoppable force that it should be or was this the time to pick someone else?  What are your thoughts about the technical elements of Captain Phillips and how much are they affected by the plot?  And which film had the best sound mixing of 2009?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Sound Mixing Contests: 2009201020112012

Friday, August 22, 2014

Accepting the Hard Truth

This past week was supposed to be self-improvement week, but I got a little distracted by a pair of Hollywood legends passing on, and didn’t have a chance to finish up our articles.  I’m going to do that now, so don’t feel like I abandoned you.

So far we’ve talked about getting the most at the gym, more productive complaining, and how important it is to plan, but now we’re going to get into something a little bit trickier.  As I get older, I find that I have gotten better at most aspects of my life.  I’m stronger at time management, better at my job, and far more decisive.  I also find that as a result of all of this I have less patience for my fellow man than I used to have in certain social situations.  I frequently sit and am supremely annoyed when someone cannot make up their mind in the Subway line or is consistently complaining about the same thing over and over again, and yet doesn’t take advice or seem to remotely want to put any effort into addressing their problem (admittedly I occasionally do the latter, so this is occasionally a hypocritical annoyance).  Me in college would have sat for hours with someone trying out different “polite” ways to tell them my opinion, but years later I find that that's not a solution worth trying and the polite thing to do would be to help them solve the problem, even if the solution comes across as harsh.  I’ll have all the sympathy in the world for someone if they are genuinely trying and failing, but if all they are doing is complaining and waiting for their dreams to come along, then I just don’t have the time.

There’s a weird thing in society these days that seems to revolve around everyone needing everything they are regaled with to be positive.  I cannot tell you how many people simply don’t watch the news because they cannot handle all of it being bad (ignorance be damned!), and are supremely afraid of telling someone something bad because it will hurt their feelings.  I’m all for packaging something, particularly if you can tell someone is sensitive about what they’re telling you, but I think it’s about time that tough love came back in style.

The reality is that I have learned more from people giving me complete and honest feedback than I ever have from a sugarcoating or a compliment sandwich.  Frequently, the only thing you genuinely want when you ask for advice (even if you’re not aware of it) is reassurance that you are doing the correct thing, but that’s not really what advice and learning should be for.

I feel like some examples are in order so you know where I’m headed here.  Let’s say that you are constantly trying to find a significant other, but keep having the same bout of bad luck.  You ask your friend, and I guarantee you will get some version of “he’s out there, you just have to wait, if he’s like that he’s not the right one,” which is kind and comforting, but not remotely helpful and if you’ve been on a string of bad dates, infuriating.  A better response to this would be honesty, even if it hurts.  Saying something like, “I love you, but you’re way too picky” or “you always seem to self-sabotage” or “you find fault with everyone and dismiss them before giving them a chance” or even the truly tough “you keep going for girls that are way out of your league” is apparently hurtful on the tongue, but it’s probably the nicest thing you could do for someone.  Personally, I feel that we’d all be a lot better off if at the end of a first date that we didn’t want to see the person again we’d tell them why so they could keep that in mind in the future, but that’s not going to happen-your friends being honest with you might.

Because the hard truth is that sometimes, as much as no one wants to admit this, the problem isn’t the "them" or the situation or the many loves who didn’t happen-it’s you.  This isn’t something we’re supposed to say in an increasingly “everything is awesome” societal attitude, but it’s true.  Maybe the promotion you’re not getting isn’t because your boss hates you-maybe it’s because you don’t apply yourself enough to prove that you deserve the promotion at work.  Maybe the diet that you’ve been on for months isn’t working because all you do is walk and you take too many “breaks” from the diet to make it sustainable.  Maybe that novel that’s sitting on a shelf isn’t getting done not because you have writer’s block but because you’re afraid to fail.  And maybe all of those guys you have first dates with aren’t jerks or crazy, but instead are just turned off by something you bring to the table.

The reality is that it takes a lot of self-awareness and potentially a hard hit to the self-esteem to find these things out for yourself, but it’s an important step if you want to improve.  People rarely can solve a major, perpetual habit without changing something specific about themselves, and it’s always worth looking inward if you need to solve a problem.  This does not mean going on a pity party (THAT HELPS NO ONE!), but instead being self-aware enough to realize that you are potentially the contributing factor, and instead of feeling bad, feeling empowered.  I frequently say when someone is trying to play the blame game about an issue or a project that “I’d love it if I was the one who made the mistake-that way I can easily fix it in the future.”  That’s the sort of attitude to have about your problems; so frequently in life we are given a lousy hand, but if you have a hand that you can actually change, that’s probably the best you can hope for when you’re running low on success.  So don’t be afraid to tell people if there truly is something impeding their success, and make sure that you are actually willing to listen when you ask for advice and not just reassurance.  And most importantly, make up your mind about what you want on your sandwich at Subway before you get to the front of the line!

Ranting On...Leonard Maltin and the Decline of Classic Cinema

Leonard Maltin
By now many of you have likely heard about the end of an era in terms of movie criticism.  Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, a 45-year-old institution for cinema fans and casual movie-lovers alike will publish its last edition this fall.  An entire generation of film lovers, myself included, had a copy of Maltin’s book on their shelves growing up.  I remember my brother and I would pore through the books, trying desperately to find a movie that wasn’t listed (it was extremely difficult) and referencing every new film that we saw on AMC or Turner Classic Movies.  Whenever a young film fan would try and list every film they've ever seen (my brother I believe did this successfully once…I did not succeed and consider it a likely lost cause with my current movie-watching habits), Maltin’s handbook was the only logical starting point, and I frequently found myself adding movies to my “To Watch” list thanks to a surprise four-star citation.  Even when I disagreed with Maltin's opinions (which was more frequently as the years went on), I had to respect his deep commitment to chronicling so many movies and making them available to the mass public.

In some respects this of course makes sense.  Maltin’s book, while endlessly entertaining, cannot really compare to the in-depth reviews that you can find on a Rotten Tomatoes or with the cast listings that you can see on IMDB.  These sites allow for limitless facts, trivia, reviews, and crew members to be included alongside the basic information you’d find in Maltin’s guide.  And yet, there’s something deeply sad about this passing, and not just in a nostalgic “seasons change” sort of way.

The reality is that Maltin’s book, even with its dwindling readership, is one of the few places left that genuinely forces you to interact with the history of cinema.  Back in the day you would be looking up a review of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy and see something like Grand Hotel on a nearby page.  The book forced you to realize the breath of cinema, and not just one limited purview.  With IMDB, you just don’t get that, and it shows.  Look at the way that Robin Williams death was covered in comparison to the deaths of other film icons this year like Shirley Temple and Lauren Bacall.  Admittedly, part of what was driving Williams’ coverage was the tragic nature of his death, but the bulk of it is because most of the public has no consciousness when it comes to Temple and Bacall.

This doesn’t always seem to be the case in other fields.  Sports figures are revered for all-time by fans, and there’s a lot to be said for a baseball fan’s sense of film history over, say, even your most ardent of film fans.  Many people fancy themselves cultural connoisseurs of classic cinema, but will let the fact that they have never seen The Godfather Part II or Meet Me in St. Louis just sit there on their queue while they watch Big Bang Theory reruns again.

That really brings me to the old man with a cane part of my rant, but I do feel it’s a conversation worth having: it’s time for film fans who only seem to watch television to stop professing that they love the movies in the same way or equal way as TV.  I have encountered a number of people recently who have chastised me to no end that I have not seen Orange is the New Black, and they are right, but they haven’t hit Ida or Boyhood and are wildly behind on their cinematic zeitgeist, not to mention their classic film count.  You can certainly call yourself a television fan (even if it doesn’t have the same cultural cache that being a "fan of the cinema" does), but if you cannot remember what the last classic movie you saw for the first time was, it’s the equivalent to you calling yourself someone who reads but only finished one book in the past year.  You may be a lapsed fan, but you're not a current one.

And I guess that’s why I really lament the end of Maltin’s book, because it’s one less way for an increasingly classic film-averse society to learn more about the history of the movies.  The American Film Institute doesn’t put out its annual compendiums of the greatest films of different genres anymore.  Best of lists on Entertainment Weekly look like they were designed by a frat house and heaven forbid they list more than three films made before 1960 on those things (it's hard to imagine they once came out with a magazine of the best films of all-time that had Celine and Julie Go that list would probably contain The Avengers).  Even Oscar, once the paragon of celebrating the history of the movies, has slipped to the point where they occasionally resemble the VMA’s more than a celebration of cinema’s best.  The Governors Awards aren’t even televised, and so people who may not have been familiar with the likes of Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury and other recent Honorary winners won’t get the moments I had while growing up, watching Kirk Douglas and Elia Kazan and Michael Kidd pick up their Oscars and seeking out their films as a result.

So while film criticism will live on as long as people make movies worth having an opinion on, the reality is that classic cinema and its celebration is something that has become an endangered species, and something we should not stand for as film-lovers.  And what’s the best way to help deter this from happening?  By doing what we would have done the first time we grabbed a Leonard Maltin book-go out, find a classic title that you’ve never seen and been putting off (or better yet-one that you haven’t even heard of), stop watching Real Housewives or The Voice, and fall in love with classic cinema once more.