Thursday, February 11, 2016

Stage Fright (1950)

Film: Stage Fright (1950)
Stars: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Watching an Alfred Hitchcock classic for the first time is a bit of a thrill.  So many of my favorite movies of Hollywood's Golden Age were made by the great director, the man who brought us The Birds and Psycho and Vertigo, that seeing one of his movies that I don't have completely memorized is a bit of a bizarre circumstance, as you almost feel like you should be quoting alongside it.  That was the case with Stage Fright, which with its big-name stars Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, seems like the sort of movie that I should be going at verbatim.  Still, I had never seen Stage Fright until last night in my quest to find more room on my DVR (this 31 Days of Oscar is really helping me cross a lot of pictures off my list, and get eliminated things that have been lounging about my Genie for months), and so I decided that it was a cold Wednesday night and perhaps I should give it a go.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film may not be what one instantly thinks of when you list Hitchcock's greatest movies, but it is definitely one that feels like it should be listed amongst his finest.  After all, we have a legend like Marlene Dietrich, playing a cabaret-style actress Charlotte Inwood, in the lead.  Dietrich, known for her onscreen enigma and glamour, is the perfect star for a Hitchcock picture, and indeed she lives up to the hype.  Her Charlotte, a woman we assume throughout most of the movie has killed her husband, is a great Hitchcockian creation.  She frequently is flirting and romancing pretty much everyone onscreen, and there's a sexuality to her that is undeniable.  Dietrich, over forty when this picture arrived, still has that intense glamour that radiates in every scene and in many ways reminded me of Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars so many years later (who was clearly borrowing from her), what with her bored attitude to the stage and those who worshiped her behind it.

If only the rest of the film had been able to equal Dietrich's allure and magnetism, but alas the film's remainder is in the hands of the lesser Jane Wyman.  Wyman is a celebrated actress, admittedly, with a number of fans in different corners of the cinema but I will admit right now I have yet to find the role that really sells me on the Oscar winner.  Her Eve is not going to be that performance for me, it turns out, even though I had high hopes that Hitchcock would have found some way to make her work.  Playing a frumpy busybody trying to clear her friend/crush Jonathan Cooper (Todd), her motivations and accents are all over the place.  She's playing the daughter of Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike, quite possibly the two most British human beings ever to grace a movie screen, and yet she can't bother to have an accent to match her parents and almost the entire surrounding cast.  Plus, she constantly is falling in and out of love and can't sell her character's naivete/newfound moxie and it feels like she's re-approaching the character in every different scene.  Dietrich, who disliked Wyman immensely, made a comment about how Wyman "looks too much like the victim to play the heroine," which may have been catty but it's spot-on-Wyman makes Eve seem like someone just waiting for her detective boyfriend to figure out what to do next, rather than taking on the task herself.

Still, no single actor can weigh down a Hitchcock picture completely, and while this film doesn't have the excellent and iconic scenes of say, Cary Grant running from a plane or Janet Leigh taking a stressful shower, there's still so much to celebrate visually, particularly the brilliant lighting on Dietrich or the way that Alastair Sim fiendishly cuts his own hand to try and incriminate Dietrich.  I loved the dotty old woman played by Thorndike (it's rare that Hitchcock has humor this opaque, but it works), and Richard Todd's Jonathan seems to borrow just a hint from the Hitchcock's "queer" character file, enough so that I wondered if there might have been some holdover from Rope.  The mystery itself may be easy to solve for modern audiences, but I imagine that audiences at the time were baffled about the flashback, where we had a misleading narrator in Jonathan (it was unprecedented at the time for a flashback to feature a lie).  Overall I had an excellent time, even if Wyman deterred the film from becoming a classic.

Those are my thoughts on this movie-how about yours?  Who has seen the Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright?  What are some missing holes you have in Hitch's filmography?  Is Ordinary Smith or Chubby Bannister the better moniker?  And what is the role that will finally convince me to love Jane Wyman?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

5 Thoughts on the New Hampshire Primaries

And once again the presidential battle has been completely upended.  In what has been (truly, and not just in a cliched way) one of the strangest battles ever for the Democratic and Republican nominations, we saw yet another set of twisty turns, this time more because the winners ended up being who was expected (which wasn't quite the case in Iowa).  Here are five thoughts that most stick out to me after last night.

1. Donald Trump is Back

No one needed a win last night as much as Donald Trump.  The New York billionaire had suffered a crushing blow in Iowa, watching his numbers dwindle nationally and even in some cases in New Hampshire.  However, thanks to a deathblow against Marco Rubio from Chris Christie (more on that in a second), Trump managed to not only win the New Hampshire primary, he managed to do so against John Kasich of all people, a man with little money, name recognition, and whose campaign is hardly the stuff that even the establishment was hoping for.  Trump now heads into South Carolina not only with the wind to his back, but with the solid chance that he could pick up more voters from the hemorrhaging Carson campaign (who still has 8.7% of the vote according to Real Clear Politics, but I suspect that number is about to fall).  Trump now has a little bit of leeway (and has shown he can sustain a loss), but he also could be about to throw a death punch at a number of candidates, including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, if he wins South Carolina.  Let's be clear-after last week Donald Trump's presidential aspirations were waning, but at this point they couldn't be brighter: he has a fractured establishment, huge leads in the polls, and a Democratic Party that looks deeply divided and potentially like they might be making a very risky choice in their nominee as well.

2. Bernie Sanders Becomes Real

It was highly expected that the Vermont senator would win the New Hampshire primaries, but his crushing defeat of Hillary Clinton was so remarkable that one wonders what the Democratic establishment is going to do about it in response.  Sanders will surely have a national rebound, perhaps even leading in some polls as a result of him being taken seriously, and so far the national media has been handling him with kid gloves, which I still don't think is going to change in the coming weeks despite what you may be reading (the media has no reason to rain on this parade just yet because it sells more clicks if Hillary Clinton is losing).  Additionally, unlike the Republicans (who head next to South Carolina), the Democrats head to Nevada where Sanders has a better shot at Clinton than when they get to the South and Clinton has the upper-hand.  It's now become increasingly apparent that Clinton has a real messaging problem and could have put her campaign at jeopardy by not taking Sanders seriously enough early on in the race.  Clinton still has to be considered the frontrunner due to her strong backing of older women and minority voters, but she's going to have to find a way to mobilize against a Sanders campaign that has found ways to win over young voters enough to make up the difference on election day.

3. So...John Kasich?

If there was a third winner last night (and really, there wasn't more than three unlike in Iowa) it was the Ohio governor, who basically got enough of a boost out of New Hampshire to continue his race into South Carolina.  The longtime Washington veteran seems like an odd fit for an electorate clamoring for an outsider, but Kasich technically fits the bill on the "establishment" front (he's a former congressman and governor of the quintessential swing state), but the biggest question here is whether or not he can translate his silver medal here into an actual win in another state, or whether he was some sort of electoral fluke.  I suspect that he'll have enough cash to make it through the next week, but whether or not he can sustain a win in New Hampshire when he has limited options for the next few weeks is a very large question mark.

4. Rubio, Bush, and Cruz

There are of course a few other candidates in the race, but most of them appear to be after-thoughts at this point.  Chris Christie may have made the biggest impact of the race if Marco Rubio's debate performance continues to hang over the contest costing the establishment their easy rallying point, but that will be it as he goes back to New Jersey and spends the rest of his life realizing that he should have run in 2012.  Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are almost to complete irrelevance at this point, and if I were them I'd suggest endorsing a candidate whose cabinet you think you could get into in short order before that endorsement seems pointless and you don't have any bartering power.  That being said, I suspect that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all stick around, though aside from Cruz (who has Iowa and a bevy of Southern states that he can rely upon), they head to South Carolina with a lot to prove.  Marco Rubio is no longer able to call himself the establishment choice after his embarrassing debate performance and John Kasich vastly outperforming him in the Granite State, but he still remains a potent force and a dramatic foil for Sanders or Clinton.  However, I suspect that, despite having the least air in his lungs, Jeb Bush may be in a better position than the media is giving him.  He still has money and infrastructure, and smells blood in the water with Rubio's debate performance (I anticipate that he'll go after him hard in the next debate, though Rubio will be far more prepared now), knowing that the establishment crown got a little more up-for-grabs after New Hampshire.

5. This Could Get Weird, Y'All

Honestly, it's not inconceivable that Donald Trump will be fighting against Bernie Sanders in the general election after last night.  The Republican establishment won't coalesce quickly, and even if they did it remains to be seen if Rubio, Bush, or Kasich are particularly solid candidates after major stumbles in recent weeks.  Hillary Clinton may have institutional advantages that will wear well even if the races remain close (I suspect that right now she's pushing hard for every superdelegate she can find to try and keep her inevitability aura out there), but her campaign has systemic issues and this is starting to look eerily similar to 2008.  Sanders v. Trump would be unparalleled in American history, two candidates of such profoundly different ideologies than their parties' previous candidates that it would invite everything from a very nasty election to viable third party runs.  I think that it's deeply questionable whether or not Michael Bloomberg would hurt Republicans or Democrats more, and I certainly think a different candidate would make a better third party option (considering the foreign policy gap both candidates have, I would assume a moderate former general paired with a moderate female former governor would be your best option), but considering his unlimited back account and his clear ambition for the job, I wouldn't discount Bloomberg as a third party candidate entirely.  Expect to hear his name a lot more in the coming weeks.

And there you have it-those are my thoughts-how about yours?  What do you think about the state of this very odd presidential race?

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

OVP: Swing Shift (1984)

Film: Swing Shift (1984)
Stars: Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Christine Lahti, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter
Director: Jonathan Demme
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Supporting Actress-Christine Lahti)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Watching older films always has a bit of a catch, especially in terms of where we're at with progressive politics.  I suspect twenty years from now, in fact, we'll watch films ranging from Legally Blonde to August Osage County (not sure why those were the first two that came to my mind-just go with it) and wonder about specific angles of the film and their portrayals of what is considered politically correct or important at the time.  Swing Shift presented this problem, but in a way I hadn't really anticipated.  As the cinema gets older, and in the 1980's it was pushing ninety in terms of age, it starts to revisit eras where the cinema was already an option.  Indeed, we frequently find allusions to that era in Swing Shift, mentally picturing actresses like Rosalind Russell or Susan Hayward taking on the roles that here are played by Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti.  The chief problem with the film, which has a host of them, is that even in the 1980's the politics of the movie, and the way they present them, feel regressive.  The film has too many directions it gets pulled, and you can tell that there were troubles behind-the-scenes of the picture as the end product doesn't really know what it wants to be.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film famously hosted a major fight between director Jonathan Demme, then just starting out in his Hollywood career, and Goldie Hawn, who was one of the biggest stars on the planet when Swing Shift was hitting theaters.  The film tells the story of Kay (Hawn), a woman in a happy if a bit stifled marriage to Jack (Harris), who sits around waiting for her man to come home each day and occasionally passes judgment on her provocatively-dressed neighbor Hazel (Lahti) who moonlights as a nightclub singer.  The film takes a turn when World War II breaks out, and Jack is sent to the South Pacific, and much to his chagrin, Kay takes up as a factory worker to fill the gap left by the men going to war.  She slowly befriends Hazel and falls in love with a musician named Lucky whose heart condition keeps him from fighting in the war.  The film ends with Kay going back to Jack, Hazel ending up sleeping with Lucky and then randomly marrying the guy who first promoted her as a singer, and Lucky returning to the road, all the time watching all of the women lose their jobs so that the men coming home could have them back.

The film's tonal problems are what deserve its harshest retribution, in my opinion, as the politics of the 1980's are less familiar to me (though not so much that I don't have some comments on the way that women are portrayed here).  The film cannot decide for the life of itself whether or not it is a comedy or a drama, and that was a direct result of Hawn (who wanted it to be a comedy) fighting it out with Demme (who wanted a more dramatic picture).  The film, from scene-to-scene, underwrites certain elements of the film and you cannot tell whether or not the movie is going to be light-hearted or especially what drives the main character of Kay.  The film gets bonus points for being unpredictable, but that's more due to bad plotting than anything else.  We never really get any insight into Kay, whom Hawn plays entirely surface-level, and whether or not she's upset about losing her job or whether she really wanted Jack back or just settled with him because Lucky left and it was easier this way.  The ending, with Kay and Hazel making up also feels cloying and ridiculous, partially because we never understand why Kay and Lucky, who don't really care for each other, slept with each other in the first place. In the TCM introduction to this film (I want to be Ben Mankiewicz-how do I get that job?) he says that Hawn, after Demme got fired, had the film re-edited, and you wonder if part of Lahti's performance got cut in the dust-up which explains some of her character's more erratic decisions.

After all, it's Lahti who got the praise here.  Despite Hawn being the star, Lahti managed to turn this into a major career move, and in fact won the film's only Oscar nomination.  At first I didn't really get the nomination, as after all this was just Christine Lahti and she has always had incredible onscreen presence (part of me wonders if the nomination was simply a way to tell casting directors "hire her!"), but as the film goes on Lahti makes the most out of a thankless comic side role.  She finds depths in Hazel that no one else is really pining for (watch the way that she has to continually abandon her dreams, and the way she doesn't really know what happiness is-that's not really in the script, but Lahti makes sure you notice it), and she steals literally every scene she's in in the movie.  Lahti would have benefited from a better screenwriter (I wonder if she'd have won the Oscar if we'd received Demme's original vantage of the script), but she's way better than the movie and (in my opinion) one of those rare random Oscar nominations of the 1980's that actually deserved inclusion.

Before I go I would be remiss if I didn't come back to the feminist argument here, as it's interesting to watch this film or a movie like A League of Their Own and wonder how tragic it was that America decided it didn't have room for women in the workplace and the athletic field decades earlier than the Women's Liberation movement of the 1970's (think of what we might have accomplished!).  We get little sense from either Demme or Hawn over the unfairness of the women, who now have more experience in the factory, getting fired just so their husbands can go back to work, or the complicated political ramifications of such a decision (since their husbands were forced to go to war and give up their jobs due to a draft and national pressure).  That would have made an interesting picture, but Hawn and Lahti let on little other than the occasional complaint from a random coworker that they shouldn't have to be fired to give their job to a man.  As a result, the film feels decidedly anti-feminist which is the exact opposite of what it was going toward.

All-in-all, I left this film thoroughly disappointed, save for the excellent work being done by Christine Lahti, and also with a newfound (ahem) appreciation for Ed Harris in a naval uniform.  If you've seen the picture, what are your thoughts-do you agree the film feels disjointed and lacking a clear vision?  Are you also wondering why Lahti didn't become a bigger film star as a result of this movie?  And which of the 1984 Supporting Actresses gets your vote?  Share in the comments!

OVP: Documentary Short Film (2015)

OVP: Best Documentary Short Film (2014)

The Nominees Were...


David Darg and Bryn Mooser, Body Team 12
Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck, Chau, Behind the Lines
Adam Benzine, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, Last Day of Freedom

My Thoughts: One of the biggest drawbacks of the Oscar Viewing Project when I conceived it so many moons ago (It's been over 3.5 years since I retook up on the blog-I'm hoping you're enjoying the now over 1500 articles at your disposal as much as I've enjoyed writing them!) I realized that a couple of things weren't going to be feasible.  There are, of course, certain films that I simply was never going to be watching unless Jack Warner's granddaughter finds something in her attic, but I also knew that tracking down the short films and documentary films, almost never in the same sort of circulation as the narrative, feature-length films, would be a lost cause.  That being said, I also made a vow to see them and write about them if I had a chance, and luckily for me we have the amazing people at ShortsHD who annually screen the documentary, live action, and animated shorts in theaters.  We should hopefully get to the other nominated films soon, but for right now, we'll start with the documentary shorts.

I will admit first-hand that this category is one that I never quite know how to approach, and that's true for Body Team 12, a film that has emerged as close to frontrunner status as one can get in this sporadic category. The film is considerably briefer than the other movies, clocking it at least 17 minutes shorter than the next quickest film, but arguably has the most recent and pertinent film subject, that of the ebola crisis in Liberia.  The film takes place during what appears to be the height of the ebola crisis, and while the subject matter lends a gravitas to the proceedings, the film itself feels like little more than a moment in time sort of documentary, where they chronicle the life of a brave aid worker.  The film doesn't really impress cinematically, even if (of course) getting this kind of footage probably deserves some sort of reward in its own right.  The film simply hits familiar story beats and may come too late after us enduring weeks of similar-style reporting on CNN every night as the Ebola crisis was covered ad nauseam.

The same cannot be said for Chau, a film about the decades of after-effects caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam.  The film follows Chau, a young man with severe body deformations affecting his arms and legs, who aspires to paint, but must use his mouth to be able to accomplish his visions.  Chau is, in fact, quite skilled and eventually gets a job painting for a series of office spaces, and continues to be deeply optimistic about his situation.  It's the sort of film where tears fall easily, but I have to admit that the filmmaking style left me a bit cold.  The movie may have made more of an impact if we'd gotten a little bit into how to fix the problem of Agent Orange (I like activist documentaries, personally), but instead it goes for the most easily-emotional beats (who doesn't think that this is a great tragedy while watching, even if Chau is incredibly uplifting).  I guess the filmmaking left us with the broadest strokes possible of the story, which ends up feeling more like a profile you'd see on a morning talk show than an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Another documentary with a pretty broadly-supportive subject, but which gets further insights into its issue is The Girl in the River.  Telling the story of a Pakistani girl who is shot in the face and left for dead in an "honor killing" by her father and uncle after she decides to marry a neighbor boy they don't approve of, the film could on the surface be a portrait of the atrocities that are targeted at women in certain areas of the world.  The film, however, gets deeper and is surely the movie where you're most impressed at the filmmakers' interview skills, as we get true depictions not just of a girl who feels very ahead-of-her-time and who is forced to deal with a society that does not remotely have her best interests at heart, but also at the decision-making process of the men who oppress her rights (we see a progressive lawyer try to convince the village elders to see the attack as vicious and not something that simply dishonored her male relatives), but also we get a portrait of her father and uncle as they are interviewed in a prison.  The film's trick is that we get to see an alien, almost mad-man's look at how his pride goes above his child's well-being, and we see how justice doesn't come for our protagonist, and she is merely rewarded with not being killed.  There isn't a happy ending, but it's the documentary that made me the angriest of the bunch and made me want to go out and advocate the hardest, so that says something for its potency.

Theoretically Last Day of Freedom plays it a little less safe, keeping its film entirely animated (has a film ever been nominated for both animated and documentary in the short categories-let me know if you know in the comments!), and actually tackling a subject that the audience in the theater might not instantly agree with (everyone is against ebola and murdering your daughter in an American audience, less so the death penalty).  This presents a distinctive style to the film that should set it apart more and make it the most relevant, but the actual film itself doesn't really address a lot of the moral complexities of the death penalty, instead just presenting it entirely as an issue that should be condemned.  This may line up, admittedly, with your own personal and moral beliefs, but it misses the mark particularly in a western audience where this is the only "hot-button" topic of the four that has a robust debate over whether or not it should be legalized (we never hear, for example, anything from the family of the murdered woman, just from the family of the perpetrator).  As a result of this, I felt the coolest on this film in terms of the argument that it made, and wished that it relied less on pure emotion and more on some reasoned facts as it went along.

The final film to come out during my screening was Spectres of the Shoah.  The film interviews Claude Lanzmann, the director of the landmark 1985 documentary, and we are emerged into the world of his film process, having him recount the events that led up to the eventual release of Shoah.  The film is gripping watching a man talk about his singular masterpiece, and the profound effect it had on the world of film (it is considered by many to be the greatest documentary ever made), and I love the way the filmmaker unfolds the movie, giving us stories that Lanzmann is comfortable recounting, and then eventually some where he's not (like when he covertly interviews a former Nazi officer with a hidden camera).  The movie itself also frames up Lanzmann as deeply complicated, and occasionally conflicted about his reputation and the film that he made, and I thought the entire endeavor was fascinating considering Lanzmann's place in the world of documentary-interviewing to see him become the subject, rather than the man behind the camera.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Academy releases a shortlist of the films eligible for this award so we know that 50 Feet from Syria, Minerita, The Testimony, Starting Point, and My Enemy, My Brother were all quite close to being included on this list.  I have to think that this is one of the cruelest shortlists to miss from, as the difference between your film making it to the Dolby or not is the difference between your film's audience growing about 1000x what it normally would have been.
Films I Would Have Nominated: Sadly they don't put short films before films with regularity anymore (don't you wish they did?) and so I don't get to see enough nominees to complain.
Oscar’s Choice: This is tough-most pundits tend to be siding with Body Team 12 and the recent-ness of  the subject compared to the other films makes that seem like a solid guess.  I wouldn't totally discount the emotional pull of Chau though, nor the peaked interest (for the movie-making AMPAS) of Spectres.
My Choice: Hands down Spectres of the Shoah, which is both the most cinematic and the most thought-provoking for me.  I'd follow that with Girl in the River, Body Team 12, Last Day of Freedom, and Chau.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Did you see these documentary films, and if so, who were you cheering for?  And if not, who is still what you're marking on your Oscar predictions ballot?

Past Documentary Short Film Contests: 2014

Thursday, February 04, 2016

OVP: The Actress (1953)

Film: The Actress (1953)
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright, Anthony Perkins
Director: George Cukor
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

You may not have realized this because I haven't said anything and we're already four days into the festival, but the Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar is one of my most hallowed Academy Awards traditions.  Every year like clockwork I make my list of all of the missing OVP films that Netflix/the studios (it's case-by-case on whom to blame there) haven't released on DVD and that I can't get delivered to my apartment, and though I always have failed, I try my darndest to keep up with the rigorous schedule.  This year I have no illusions that it will be a challenge, but my goal is to not have any of the (100 or so-eek!) movies that are on my DVR slip quietly into the night without either seeing them or finding a different way to get my hands on them while I make room for the new (100 or so-double eek!) movies that TCM is throwing down my pipe.  That is how we chance upon this little-discussed Jean Simmons dramedy from the early 1950's based on the life of future Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon.  I'm hoping you enjoy obscure film reviews (I know I do) because the blog is going to be filling up with them pretty darn fast over the next few weeks.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film, as I mentioned, is based on the very early life of Ruth Gordon, long before she became a great writer (even penning Spencer Tracy's classic Adam's Rib) and become the antichrist's wet nurse (if you don't get that reference you really need to see more movies).  The film follows her as she has a domineering father (Tracy) and a doting but troubled mother (Wright-and I cannot believe that they managed to make Teresa Wright look so believably old in this film despite only being about 35-kudos to the makeup and hair team) and tries to convince them to support her love of acting and quest to become a great star on the stage.  Her father wants her to do something more practical, like become a gym teacher, while her mother wants her to get married to her nice boyfriend Fred (Perkins, in his screen debut).  But Ruth wants to act, and is willing to go to great lengths and make great sacrifices to get there.

The interesting thing about The Actress is where it was positioned in Ruth Gordon's actual career and the way that sort of reflects the bitter anguish of the film (the ending of the movie has Tracy forced to sell his beloved spyglass after losing his job but still wanting to send his daughter to New York City to pursue her dream).  While Gordon would have some success earlier in her career (most notably playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois), it wasn't until after The Actress that she actually made her biggest impact in the cinema, eventually in the late 1960's (when most actresses would be in their twilight years) winning an Oscar for Rosemary's Baby, another nomination for Inside Daisy Clover, and legions of fans as Maude Chardin in the beloved Harold and Maude.  In 1953, Gordon's career had been a success not as an actress, but as a writer, winning three Oscar nominations and writing several of the classic Tracy-Hepburn films.

This adds an extra level to what Jean Simmons is doing as her Ruth, because we assume that she actually won't get to be Hazel Dawn, her idol, and instead will have to settle for a different vocation, one that may bring her even more joy and would allow for her to find the love of her life, but isn't the dream that she wanted for herself as a child.  Simmons plays the part excellently, perhaps the first time I've ever really gravitated toward her in a film (before I'd kind of gotten a "stodgy" vibe from the actress).  I love the way that her confidence exceeds her ability, and the way that she has written so many plays and acts for herself-her greatest part is herself, which is a meta-joke considering Gordon wrote this particular film about herself.  Tracy and Wright are both fine as her parents, though Tracy could probably do this part in his sleep and doesn't get the wit that he had in some of his other collaborations with Cukor and Gordon (this is more bluster).  All-in-all, a good film made more interesting by the back story.  And the costumes were a nice touch, even if there isn't really anything particularly special going on aside from putting Jean Simmons in a parade of bows and hats (though if you've ever wanted to see Norman Bates unironically sporting a fur coat that feels like it's straight out of Liberace's closet, you cannot pass this movie up).  The rest of the costume work is a series of too-fashionable dresses that feel well outside of the budget of Ruth, particularly with her penny-pinching father.  Random trivia about the nomination, though: Walter Plunkett was nominated twice that year for outfitting Jean Simmons, also gaining a citation for Young Bess.  He ended up losing, however, to Edith Head with Roman Holiday-clearly Plunkett should have gone with Audrey Hepburn.

Those are my thoughts on the film.  What about you-has anyone seen The Actress, and wants to weigh in on its quality and costumes?  If not, what about Ruth Gordon and Jean Simmons, both big actresses in their days who have gotten a little lost in the pop culture shuffle?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

5 Biggest Questions for the New Hampshire Primaries

Just two days out from Iowa and six days away from New Hampshire, the entire political world is trying with all their might to be the loudest, not least of which are the pundits who are determined to be correct after pretty much everyone crapped out in Iowa by underestimating Cruz and Sanders.  I won't necessarily be doing that here, but instead I wanted to pose the five biggest questions that I have headed into New Hampshire-the questions that, depending on the answers, will largely shape who are next president is.

1. Donald Trump-the Real Deal or Bluster and Smoke?

No question posed to Granite State voters next week will be more important than that of what happens to Donald Trump.  After months and months of being atop pretty much every poll in America, Trump got caught both in GOTV and in late-deciding voters turning against him, giving a huge advantage to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who came out the "winners" of the Iowa Caucuses for the GOP.  I said before Iowa that no one needed a win there more than Ted Cruz, and headed into New Hampshire no one needs to win-not place, not show, but win-there more than the New York reality star.  To discount Trump from the race after just Iowa would be a fool's errand (he still has universal name recognition, and broad support nationally and in upcoming states), but if he loses here it's difficult to see a way that Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president, even if he retains his media attention.

2. Cruz, Rubio, and the Momentum Question

Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had a good Monday night, outperforming polls and both went to New Hampshire with the added bravado that, nine months from now, they could be winning a far bigger contest and a place in history.  The question becomes now, though, will either of them gain in the polls or outperform in a similar way in New Hampshire.  This question is particularly compelling for Rubio, who got a little bit of a backlash from pundits (or at least a side-eye) over being so enthusiastic over a third place finish.  Were he to beat Trump or pose an impressive second place showing here, I suspect that could be enough to quell doubts that he's all potential and no sizzle, but I think Rubio needs to shoot for a silver at the least in order to retain his momentum and not cede it to someone else...

3. Does the GOP have room for a fourth man?

Let's assume that the polls are right for a second, and that Donald Trump ends up winning New Hampshire as expected.  That would leave Cruz, Trump, and Rubio as the likely three candidates to go the distance through Super Tuesday and potentially beyond (this, for the record, would be the best thing to ever happen to Marco Rubio, who would have all of the establishment support).  The question is, though, whether or not there's room for a fourth man, something Govs. John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie are all asking.  I may be shooting myself in the foot by saying this (this has been, after all, a wild and crazy election season), but really this is a question that only Jeb Bush should be asking.  Chris Christie and John Kasich could, of course, outperform here but where do they go from there?  Neither man has the infrastructure or the room in the race to really turn this election into their corner, unless somehow they beat or nearly tie for first.  Jeb Bush, on the other hand, still has an incredibly large amount of money in his Super PAC, a robust operation in South Carolina that would be advantageous if he did well next Tuesday, and huge establishment support from his family and their decades-old connections in the party, to turn a silver medal into something that could rival Marco Rubio.  Admittedly, nothing about Bush's campaign so far has really indicated anything could happen and he might simply be too toxic in the GOP, but his polls in the Granite State have rebounded, to the point where Harper has him at second place.  If he manages second place, and has a similar sort of effect that Rubio had (where he gained on Trump dramatically at the last minute with the media pronouncing him a "winner"), it wouldn't be impossible for him to become one of the last men standing and regain some of his lost reputation.

4. What Kind of Lead Does Bernie Sanders Get?

It seems near-impossible for Bernie Sanders, after essentially tying Hillary Clinton in Iowa, to lose in New Hampshire, and the Clinton camp knows this.  This is perhaps the last spot on the tour where they can make Sanders look like an "also-ran" since it's the last primary for a while (at least based on current polling) where Sanders is expected to win, so Hillary Clinton's narrative can't be damaged by a loss here.  Clinton has dispatched dozens of volunteers from her Brooklyn office to try and tie up this race, since a close math here would reflect poorly on Sanders.  If Sanders can post into the double-digits, it's difficult to see Clinton able to spin this in any way as a good thing for her, but if she can make the race much closer, or (very slim odds, but not impossible considering she's done it before) win the state, it would perhaps be the last way she could end a potentially fractious and lengthy primary battle.

5. Who drops out in the meantime?

Martin O'Malley, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul have all dropped out since Iowa, and rumors abound about who could be next.  While the Democrats don't really have any questions around this (it's a two-person race), the Republicans are collectively going to be watching these candidates like a hawk as even a handful of voters here and there could be the difference between second or third in New Hampshire (there's a reason that Hillary Clinton pointed out Martin O'Malley is a good man in her Iowa acceptance speech-she knows his 2-3 points could be useful in the near future).  In particular, keep your eyes on Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, both of whom have about a 4-point base of support in New Hampshire, but an endorsement of another candidate (say Fiorina going for Bush/Rubio or Carson for Trump/Cruz) could give an extra bounce that could mean a wind at someone's back.  Lest we forget the winners and losers in the Iowa caucus were decided by a slim margin, so a 4-point add would be a huge plus for someone running in the Granite State.

There they are-what about you?  What questions are you wondering about headed into New Hampshire?  Share your thoughts below!

OVP: Son of Saul (2015)

Film: Son of Saul (2015)
Stars: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Foreign Language Film-Hungary)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Oscar-nominated films, particularly in the Foreign Language Film category, are frequently in one of two varieties.  You have your lighter fare comedies, the films that probably couldn't dream of being nominated for an Oscar in a normal circumstance but because it's in a foreign language the implied artistry is there so it's forgivable, and then you have the harsh, wintry dramas, films so dark and dank that they make The Revenant look positively sunny (well, not actually as that film is ridiculously bleak, but you know what I mean).  Upon initial glance, Son of Saul was clearly going to be in the latter category.  A film about a man who struggles to bury a young boy he just killed in the gas chambers during the Holocaust is not really a film that is going to be popcorn-infused or a particularly strong date movie.  However, while watching I couldn't quite bucket this film, which is getting massive Oscar buzz and already has the nomination, into a specific bucket of so many dark dramas that came before it.  The film contours itself just enough to be memorable, to stick with you in filmic ways you didn't quite expect.

(Spoilers Ahead) The first fifteen minutes of Son of Saul I quite frankly was stumped.  The movie starts out with a herky-jerky camera where we're following Saul (Rohrig) around what appears to be a fairly routine day in his concentration camp, which is petrifying because his routine day is helping the Nazis kill hundreds of his fellow countrymen.  We see Saul as he kills multiple people in the gas chamber, and the film actually plays with our viewing of the horror a little bit by keeping select background characters blurred during this sequence, perhaps mirroring the way that Saul can cope with such atrocity on an almost hourly basis.  Honestly, fifteen minutes in (after having a quick breakdown in tears) I wondered how the hell I was going to deal with this camerawork (which was hurting my eyes) and such a dour film for so long.

The film, however, offered a reprieve from the camerawork (at least not to the same extreme it had initially) and I slowly found myself enveloped into the story of Saul as he tries to bury a young man whom he believes is his son, though he hasn't seen him in years, and according to some of the other men he works with, he has no son.  The film follows him as he tries to secure a rabbi to perform a proper burial for the boy, all-the-while being involved in a daring escape mission that other men in the camp have been planning for weeks.  During these scenes where he's fleeing to different work stations around the camp and is involving himself in multiple on his quest, we get perhaps the most interesting endeavor of the movie, as we see a bizarre hodgepodge of personalities around the camp.  We meet, for example, a man who is smuggling pictures out of the camp to an Allied journalist to show the atrocities of what the Germans are doing.  We see the madness that has settled in on the prisoners of the camp, and we slowly start to wonder whether or not Saul as our narrator is particularly reliable.

One of the great things about Son of Saul's script is that we never really get an answer to that question.  While we soon learn that Saul's child, if he is indeed Saul's child, was not with his wife but with a woman whom he had an affair with (likely a prostitute) and this is his only way of offering absolution for someone he couldn't acknowledge in life.  It's a powerful message, and it shows that either through madness or sheer will he finds a way to bury the boy (though the rabbi he eventually discovers is not in fact a holy man, but someone pretending to be a religious figure to save himself from being executed), but doesn't end up succeeding, watching the boy's body disappear into the river before he encounters his ghostly spirit in the woods (right before the German guards chance upon Saul and the fleeing prisoners and shoots them).  It's a fascinating conundrum of a film as it shows not only the physical atrocities of the Holocaust, but the mental ones as well.  The film's central premise of whether or not Saul has been driven insane by such horror for so many decades is a critical component of the movie, and manages to gloss over what otherwise is a pretty standard-fare drama.  If this film wins the Oscar as I suspect it will, I hope it does so because of this strange story-twist and not just because it's a World War II drama, a favorite subject of this category, as that is what sets Son of Saul apart.

Those are my thoughts on this tough, challenging, film-what about yours?  Do you think Hungary will secure its first win in decades?  Do you believe that Saul truly had a son, and why do you feel that way regardless of the answer?  And where does this rank on your own Oscar ballot?  Share in the comments below!