Friday, October 24, 2014

Democrats and the Majority: A Look at the Numbers

Can the Democrats "pull a Heidi Heitkamp" to win the majority?
All cycle long, I have written about the Senate, and from a political junkie's perspective there's a reason for that.  While the battle for the Senate is always my favorite election to study (because of the nuisances that go into only electing a third of the body every two years, and the array of individual personalities that it manages to ensnare), this year in particular has been a battle royale because so many races have either defied conventional wisdom or stayed just within the margin of error.  However, I have said for a while now that the Democrats have little to no chance of actually holding the Senate, and in my last article about the majority before next week's mammoth articles (I feel like I'm up-selling here, but just prepare yourselves here), I figured it was time to get a little data-driven into why the Democrats have an issue in holding the Senate.

Real Clear Politics is one of the political sites that I visit religiously-not just every day but throughout the day, primarily because it is a one-stop shop when it comes to articles from around the web and polling averages.  This is where I start out when I’m thinking about where the trends are going nationally, and which seats are going up or down (rather than simply relying on one specific poll, as I’ve learned through the years that one specific poll doesn’t really help you at all).

Real Clear Politics will take the average of the polls right before an election to create their political prediction, a pretty solid way to create a prediction, and as a general rule, this is breathtakingly accurate.  For all the talk about “upsets,” the reality is that if you look at polling data immediately before an election, it’s almost always correct in predicting the victor.  In fact, while frequently the RCP Average will have little to do with predicting the actual margin of victory (someone like Mark Begich dropped nine points in his RCP Average in 2008 and Mark Udall went up eight points that same year), only five times in the past four Senate election cycles has the RCP Average leader lost the actual election.

This is key to understanding why the Democrats have such an uphill battle.  If you look at the current averages, four Democrats are currently leading in very close races: Jeanne Shaheen in Hew Hampshire, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Greg Orman (Independent, but let’s be serious here) in Kansas, and Michelle Nunn in Georgia.  All four of these incumbents have RCP Averages that are in the plus-column, but by less than two-points.  By comparison, no competitive seat leaning Republican has an average that low (the closest you get is Joni Ernst in Iowa with +2.5).

Let’s assume for a second that Shaheen, Hagan, and Orman all three win (this is a big assumption, for what it’s worth, as only Orman could legitimately claim that momentum is currently in his corner).  This would get the Democrats to 48 votes in the Senate, two shy of the majority.  Michelle Nunn, were Georgia a state without runoffs, would likely be in the driver’s seat.  The David Perdue outsourcing comments were about the best thing that could have happened to her campaign-they hit home with blue collar, lower-income, white voters in Georgia, the sorts of voters who are registered as Democrats but only actually vote Democrat when they don’t like the Republican (this gave Nunn an in to show why they shouldn’t like the Republican, and even if it’s a protest vote rather than one specifically endorsing Nunn, it counts the same on Election Night).  However, Nunn needs to hit 50% on Election Night to avoid a runoff, which means she’d need nearly every undecided to go in her favor, a steep task and probably the first “miracle” the Democrats would need to seal the deal with the Senate (the Democrats would be underdogs headed into a runoff, particularly if Shaheen, Hagan, and Orman had just won, as Nunn’s seat could well be the clincher for Senate control at that point).

This, unfortunately for the Democrats, would leave them with 49 votes.  That’s where the big challenge is for the Democrats-they are in a position this year where they are hoping that the polls in at least one state are wrong.  In fact, they aren’t just hoping (we’re always hoping the polls are wrong when we are losing), they’re counting on it.  They have to win four very marginal seats, plus one that isn’t in their column yet, which as I stated above, there’s only about a 4% chance of happening.

Taking a look at the five races that favored the Democrats, there’s a wee bit of hope in that all five of the candidates that beat the odds were in fact Democrats: Al Franken in 2008, Harry Reid and Michael Bennet in 2010, and Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp in 2012.  As I mentioned above, the closest race currently favored for the Republicans is Joni Ernst’s in Iowa, which has a +2.5 margin in favor of the Republicans.  The reason that I’ve been stressing this race as so important throughout the cycle is this is really the only race that is currently on the board that there’s at least a semblance of past precedent for the Democrats to win.  Ernst’s margin is actually smaller than all of the margins of the five Republicans who lost despite leading the polls above, with the exception of Denny Rehberg in Montana.  The second most vulnerable Republican (Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado) has an RCP Average of +4.0, which would be a bigger upset than all but one of the above seats.  For this reason, despite the national press frequently writing off Bruce Braley while keeping Mark Udall alive, I think that Iowa is clearly the path of least resistance and the most pivotal seat in this election.  Can the Democrats win without Iowa?  Sure (we’ll get there in just one second), but if history teaches us anything, if the Democrats have the majority in January, it will be with Bruce Braley as a member of that majority.

It is of course worth noting that one of those seats exceeded a 4.0 margin-Heidi Heitkamp’s in 2012.  I frequently write about the stunning victory that Heitkamp pulled off in 2012, but that’s because it’s, on paper, the biggest upset victory of the past four Senate cycles.  Heitkamp headed into Election Day with a 5.7-point margin working against her.   If this were the bar of entry for upsets, we’d have a pretty different playing field: Kentucky, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, and even Arkansas all have margins that are smaller than 5.7, and you can bet that all of these incumbents have likely called Heitkamp in recent weeks for advice (if they haven’t, they should).  It’s worth noting that Heitkamp did have the momentum going into Election Day; despite Mitt Romney easily winning her state, it was pretty clear that she was gaining on Rep. Rick Berg, though no one expected her to actually win.  That’s a problem for most of these Democrats, because with the exception of Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, none of these Democrats have shown that they are gaining on their opponents in the final days of the campaign.  Therefore the Heitkamp path to victory remains an elusive, probably impossible, but still theoretical way that the Democrats could win the Senate.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Oscar Trivia: Can Angelina Jolie Make History?

It doesn't take a genius to realize that Angelina Jolie is a pioneer.  A movie star par excellence, she's a figure recognized the world over for her incredible commitment to humanitarian causes, her beauty and style, and of course her many contributions to the world of cinema.  This year, that includes only her third directorial achievement, following the documentary A Place in Time and her Golden Globe-nominated In the Land of Blood and Honey.  With this movie (Unbroken, for those of you who don't live night and day for the Oscars), she is positioning herself to potentially win the Best Director prize at the Oscars, becoming the first woman to be nominated for both acting and directing, and the second woman potentially to win an Oscar for Best Director after Kathryn Bigelow a few years back.

Note above that I said first woman nominated for acting and directing, because Jolie, ever the trendsetter, were she to win the Best Director prize, would become the first person to ever win Oscars for both directing and acting (she won in 1999 for Best Supporting Actress in Girl, Interrupted).  While there are actors who have won for producing and acting (Michael Douglas comes to mind) and writing and acting (Emma Thompson comes to mind), no person has ever won both an acting Oscar and a directing Oscar.  This could change this year, and in honor of Ms. Jolie and her potential achievement, I thought it would be worth going through the thirteen men who have tried before her and failed.  Below I'll list the thirteen multi-hyphenate entertainers who have enjoyed nominations for both acting and directing (in chronological order of hitting this distinction).

Honorable Mentions: Before we begin, it's worth noting that there are a number of famous actors who have been nominated for Oscars for performances that also direct, amongst them (and this is completely off the top of my head) Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, and Dennis Hopper.  On the flip side are a number of actors that have been nominated for directing but never for acting, including Sydney Pollack, Mel Gibson, Sofia Coppola, Richard Attenborough, and Ron Howard.  And then of course there's the bizarre case of Ben Affleck, who is most known as an actor-director, and yet has been nominated for neither and still won two Oscars (for producing and writing).

1. Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954)

Acting Nominations: A Free Soul (1931), for which he won.
Directing Nominations: Madame X (1929)
Other Nominations: Mr. Barrymore was only nominated for acting and directing.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Barrymore is most noted today for his work in It's a Wonderful Life as Mr. Potter, but was quite the Oscar enthusiast in other Best Picture nominees, and directed won of the most significant lost films of the 1930's, The Rogue Song.  The film features one of the only Oscar-nominated performances to be considered "lost," from famed Oscar singer Lawrence Tibbett. Barrymore's sister Ethel would go on to have a pretty robust career with AMPAS, winning an Oscar in 1944, but his brother John would have to settle for being "The Great Profile" rather than an Oscar nominee.  His grand niece Drew is still a major star and feels like she'll someday be nominated, but so far no luck.

2. Orson Welles (1915-1985)

Acting Nominations: Citizen Kane (1941)
Directing Nominations: Citizen Kane (1941)
Other Nominations: Welles received an Oscar nomination for writing Citizen Kane, lucking out and winning for this particular citation.  He also went on to win an Honorary Oscar in 1970 for career achievement.  Funny story-Welles claimed at the time that he was filming The Other Side of Wind (his still unfinished last directorial work), but in fact was in his home in Hollywood at the time.  John Huston, another actor-director, would pick up the trophy from the Academy and give it to Welles after the ceremony.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Welles spent most of his career as a director "in the wilderness," working outside of Hollywood.  He did, however manage to have a successful follow-up to Citizen Kane with The Magnificent Ambersons which won a Best Picture nomination and is heralded as one of the greatest films of all-time, though Welles was locked out of the editing room and so the public didn't get to see his intended vision of the classic Booth Tarkington novel.

3. Laurence Olivier (1907-1989)

Acting Nominations: A titan of acting, Olivier received ten nominations for acting in his career for Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), Henry V (1945), Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955), The Entertainer (1960), Othello (1965), Sleuth (1972), Marathon Man (1976), and The Boys from Brazil (1978); he won for Hamlet
Directing Nominations: Olivier directed himself as the forlorn Danish prince in Hamlet and was Oscar-nominated for it.
Other Nominations: While he received no other nominations, Olivier did win two Honorary Oscars, one in 1945 specifically for writing, directing, and acting in Henry V, and then one in 1978 for his life achievement.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Despite an assumption that I had made that Olivier was in control of most of his later projects, he only directed three of his Oscar-nominated works.  In addition to Henry V and Hamlet, Olivier also directed Richard III.  Olivier would actually only direct two more films after Richard III: The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe (chronicled in the Oscar-nominated My Week with Marilyn) and Three Sisters (where he directed his wife, Oscar-nominee Joan Plowright).

4.  John Huston (1906-1987)

Acting Nominations: One of the rare men on this list that is more known for directing than acting, Huston nonetheless had a brief career as an actor, most notably as the evil Noah Cross in Chinatown.  He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963).
Directing Nominations: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rouge (1952), and late in his career Prizzi's Honor (1985).  He won for Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Other Nominations: Mr. Huston was nominated for producing for Moulin Rouge and for writing Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which won him his other Oscar), The Asphalt Jungle, and The African Queen, as well as Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
A Random Bit of Trivia: Huston is the only person to ever direct both a parent and a child to an Oscar.  His father Walter won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while his daughter Anjelica won for Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi's Honor.

5. Woody Allen (1935-Present)

Acting Nominations: Woody received his sole acting nomination for 1977's Annie Hall.
Directing Nominations: Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and Midnight in Paris (2011).  Mr. Allen won for Annie Hall.
Other Nominations: Allen's biggest claim to fame with Oscar is with his writing.  He received screenplay nominations for all of the films he was nominated for for directing, as well as Manhattan (1979), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1988), Alice (1990), Husbands and Wives (1992), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2006), and Blue Jasmine (2013).  He won for Annie Hall, Hannah, and Midnight in Paris.
A Random Bit of Trivia: In addition to being the most nominated screenwriter of all time (beating one of his heroes, Billy Wilder), Allen is a good luck charm for actors when it comes to Oscar-seventeen actors have been nominated for their work in his films (though bizarrely never Mia Farrow).

6. Warren Beatty (1937-Present)

Acting Nominations: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981), and Bugsy (1991), making him one of those rare actors to have been nominated in four separate decades.
Directing Nominations: Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981).  Mr. Beatty won for Reds.
Other Nominations: In addition to the Thalberg Award he won in 1999 (the same year his wife was starring in Best Picture winner American Beauty), Beatty has been nominated for producing Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Bugsy, as well as for writing Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Bulworth (1998).
A Random Bit of Trivia: Beatty kind of wrote the book on multi-hyphenate trivia.  He is one of only two actors to have been nominated for acting/directing in two separate movies (the other one is Number 10 on this list), and is the only person to be nominated for writing, directing, producing, and acting all for one film, twice (for Heaven Can Wait and Reds).  Beatty also has a bit of a history of turning down Oscar-nominated roles, including Rocky Balboa, Gorden Gekko, Richard Nixon (in Oliver Stone's Nixon), and Jack Horner in Boogie Nights.

7. Robert Redford (1936-Present)

Acting Nominations: Despite being a matinee idol for decades now, Mr. Redford has only received one acting nomination so far in his career, for 1973's The Sting.
Directing Nominations: Ordinary People (1980) and Quiz Show (1994); he won for Ordinary People
Other Nominations: Redford was also nominated for producing Quiz Show, and was given an Honorary Award in 2001 for his career, particularly for his role in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Despite the Sundance Film Festival being one of the great Meccas of independent filmmakers and the event featuring a host of future writing and acting nominees with AMPAS, only a handful of movies from the festival have competed for Best Picture: Little Miss Sunshine, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Beasts of the Southern Wild (none of them ended up winning).  However, if you want a guide to what documentaries will be nominated for the Oscar next year, just look at the Sundance lineup, as they almost always play there.

8. Kenneth Branagh (1960-Present)

Acting Nominations: Henry V (1989) and My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Directing Nominations: Henry V (1989)
Other Nominations: Sir Kenneth (he was knighted in 2012) has a bizarre history with AMPAS, having been nominated five times in five different categories (the only person ever to do that without doubling far).  In addition to the above nominations, he was also nominated for Best Live Action Short Film for Swan Song and in an odd situation (considering it was exactly the same as the Shakespearean text and hardly adapted at all) Hamlet in 1996.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Branagh is the only person on this list to never have won an Academy Award.  All of Branagh's nominations relate either directly or tangentially to Laurence Olivier: Hamlet and Henry V were both roles that Olivier played earlier in his career to Oscar-nominated success, Swan Song stars Olivier's fiercest rival on the Shakespearean stage John Gielgud, and in My Week with Marilyn Branagh actually plays Olivier.  Perhaps to keep with the symmetry of one nomination per category he should make a documentary about Olivier and see if that can finally land him a trophy.

9. Kevin Costner (1955-Present)

Acting Nominations: Dances with Wolves (1990)
Directing Nominations: Dances with Wolves (1990), for which he won.
Other Nominations: Mr. Costner was also nominated for producing Dances with Wolves, which also won him an Oscar.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Costner is one of only two men on this list to get their nominations to warrant inclusion in this list for only one film.  Costner did star in Best Picture nominees both the year before and the year after Dances with Wolves, however: 1989's Field of Dreams and 1991's JFK (it might be hard to fathom now for younger audiences who only know him from random baseball films you see on cable, but Kevin Costner was once one of the biggest movie stars on the planet).  Also, despite the general apathy with which it was received by critics and the public, Waterworld is a part of the OVP (I've never seen it-it'll be something to look forward to), getting a nod for Sound Mixing.

10. Clint Eastwood (1930-Present)

Acting Nominations: Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Directing Nominations: Unforgiven, Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)-he won for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby
Other Nominations: Clint was also nominated for producing Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima, winning for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.  He won the Thalberg Award in 1994.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Clint had to temporarily host the 44th Academy Awards when his buddy Charlton Heston was stuck in traffic.  Eastwood, not a comedian by nature, was not good at improvising and the material that was written for Heston made no sense for him.  Eastwood swore he wouldn't return to the Oscars again unless he was nominated, and he stuck to his word, not showing up again until Unforgiven.

11. Roberto Benigni (1952-Present)

Acting Nominations: Life is Beautiful (1998), for which he won
Directing Nominations: Life is Beautiful
Other Nominations: Benigni was also nominated for writing Life is Beautiful, but lost.  The film did win Best Foreign Language film, but since that honor technically goes to the country rather than the director Benigni's technical Oscar count stands at one even though you saw him win two (I have always felt this was a stupid rule, and think all directors of Foreign Language film nominees and winners should get to use their Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning titles).
A Random Bit of Trivia: Both he and Kevin Costner are the only men on this list to get all of their Oscar nominations out of one film.  Coincidentally, they share a far more dubious honor: they're the only two men to have directed themselves to Oscar nominations AND Razzie Awards (Costner for The Postman and Benigni for Pinocchio).

12. Tim Robbins (1958-Present)

Acting Nominations: Mystic River (2003), for which he won Best Supporting Actor
Directing Nominations: Dead Man Walking (1995), one of those extremely rare films that gets nominated for both lead performances, directing, and writing and doesn't get a Best Picture nomination.  Oddly enough, Leaving Las Vegas in the same year managed to do the same thing.  Also, Robbins ended up losing to a fellow actor in Mel Gibson, one of the very rare times where two actor/directors competed against each other at the Oscars.
Other Nominations: Robbins has had a long career with Oscar-nominated films, but those are his only two nominations to date.
A Random Bit of Trivia: Despite the men on this list being married to the likes of Vivien Leigh, Annette Bening, and Emma Thompson, Robbins is one of only two to have their longtime romantic partners win an Oscar for a role they directed, with Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking (the other was Woody with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall).  Clearly Brad Pitt should have waited until he had his trophy before he and Angelina got hitched.

13. George Clooney (1961-Present)

Acting Nominations: Syriana (2005), Michael Clayton (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and The Descendants (2011), with Clooney winning for Syriana
Directing Nominations: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Other Nominations: Clooney was also nominated for writing Good Night, and Good Luck as well as The Ides of March (2011), and was nominated for producing Argo (2012), which won him his second Oscar.
A Random Bit of Trivia: I'll go with two for the quintessential movie star of our era.  First, he isn't the only Oscar winner in the family: his uncle was Jose Ferrer, Best Actor of 1950 for Cyrano de Bergerac.  Secondly, Clooney is the only person in Oscar history (to date) that has been nominated in six different categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, and Adapted Screenplay.  $20 says he tries to get into one of the shorts categories before the decade is over.

And those are the thirteen gentlemen that Angelina Jolie could well be in the company of by January.  Do you think she'll do it?  Can she be the first to actually win the big prize?  And which of these men got the closest/should have sealed the deal?  Share in the comments!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

OVP: Director (2013)

OVP: Best Director (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

My Thoughts: Frequently, you have to wonder what drives someone to split their ballot between Picture and Director in the Academy.  In so many people’s minds, these are essentially the same thing.  The director helms the picture, is involved (and many times, responsible) for where it heads and almost every aspect of the film’s ultimate product.  It seems smart that they are synonymous in the minds of voters.  And yet, on occasion, even when they have the option not to, they end up splitting the vote, which was the case with 2013, when the Best Picture winner beat the Best Director winner and vice versa.

It’s hard to argue with the results, at least when it comes to Best Director, however.  Gravity is clearly a director’s achievement.  It takes a visionary to conceive of something so vast and yet so clearly rendered.  It isn’t that we haven’t gone into space before as a cinematic audience: Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas have ensured that we have ventured there countless times before.  But Alfonso Cuaron managed to do something we haven’t felt in a long-time: he made it real and within our reach.  Though of course Sandra Bullock is floating around in some earthbound feat of technology, you can feel the sheer grandeur of the heavens, the enormity of the earth, and even more daunting and petrifying, the stunning infinity of what goes beyond our atmosphere.  Cuaron’s direction uses that pressure, the way that we cling to the world we know, as vast and expansive and insanely large as it may be to an effect I’ve never seen before in a movie.

Steve McQueen also knows how to play a bit with the world beyond our own, though he does it in a far more controlled environment.  Set in the American South, 12 Years a Slave, the best choices that McQueen makes as a director aren’t the wide expanses of the humid South, but instead by showing us the moments just beyond our hero Solomon’s reach-McQueen gives us just enough side moments, with hints of future atrocities that are taking place on neighboring farms or indications of the thousands of other men and women put into slavery.  The actual central story occasionally veers too closely to a traditional narrative (mostly because it’s based on a true story), and I wasn’t wild about the framing of the ending, but there are so many distinct touches in this film that you can easily forgive the occasional tangent into the expected.

The Wolf of Wall Street was Marty’s eighth nomination for Best Director (and his twelfth overall-the man will be discussed quite a bit in our OVP write-ups).  Therefore, it’s not unexpected for Marty to be in this lineup.  What is unexpected is the way that Marty can continue to create controversy.  I know that one of the conversation pieces about Wolf of Wall Street was regarding Marty’s alleged glamorization of Jordan Belfort’s life, but let’s take a step back and wonder what this actually meant.  Unlike, say, Nebraska (oh, we’re getting there), Wolf is a film that can pull multiple different angles and viewpoints into its web.  Certain people defended Scorsese’s opulent, oftentimes garish look into the world of wealth-at-all-costs, others lambasted him for turning Belfort into a humane victim-of-circumstance.  Personally, I was in the middle, but the fact that Scorsese can still create a movie that is epic in scope and be the most rightfully controversial of the bunch is a testament to his continued care toward his filmography.  The Wolf of Wall Street is occasionally overlong, but it’s always fascinating to watch, and Scorsese continues to have something fascinating to say to the audience.

That’s less than I can say for Alexander Payne in Nebraska (see, we got there).  Payne’s lack of a directorial vision is clear, or at least it’s clear and far too convoluted to be celebrated.  The movie is essentially supposed to be about the debilitating way that Alzheimer’s rips apart the moments we expected to have as we got older, and the way that only a few family members know you through your life and get to be there for the good, and more so, the bad.  However, through Payne’s lens these interesting thoughts that the script occasionally has are bounded down by trying for too many “let’s-show-how-simple-the-flyover-states-are” comic moments and too little unearned payoff, particularly with the two sons and their journey.  Payne rarely has anything interesting to say with where his camera is pointing, frequently just catching reaction shots and not lingering in a way that made Election far more interesting than expected.  If his filmography is going to continue to be a downward slide, my hope is that the Academy at least realizes this so I don’t have to continue to watch his increasingly tepid and boring pictures.

The final nominee is another director who has traded the more interesting for the conventional.  There’s more to like in American Hustle than Nebraska, mainly thanks to the occasionally interesting performances and the outlandish but fairly accurate makeup work (I think this will probably be my last gripe in this direction, but what was AMPAS thinking skipping American Hustle for that trophy?).  However, Russell’s work itself is a total letdown.  This film is too all-over-the-place in where it takes its characters and frequently takes tangents (like the entire Robert de Niro extended-cameo thing) that go nowhere and has the characters so constantly second guess themselves that you leave not knowing who they were, and not in a good way (the only way that the ending pays off is if we care enough about Bale and Adams’ characters to actually feel that the wool has been pulled over our eyes, and we don’t know them as their true selves enough for that to payoff).  All-in-all, a step down from the interesting places he took The Fighter a few years back, and like Payne, a continual lack of payoff in his work.

Other Precursor Contenders: Best Director is one of those rare fields where the Globes, Guilds, and BAFTA awards all have the same number of nominees (aside from the supporting actor races, this is the only OVP category where this is the case).  Therefore, we should expect uniformity, and for the most part that's what we received.  The Globes gave their top trophy to Cuaron, but skipped Scorsese in favor of Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips.  The DGA Awards also honored Cuaron, and also found room for Greengrass, but in this case it was at the expense of Alexander Payne.  The BAFTA Awards also honored Cuaron (sensing a trend here?), also honored Greengrass, and once again we saw a miss for Mr. Payne.  All-in-all, Greengrass was clearly the sixth place and one of the odder misses considering that Payne's picture is even if you throw out your opinions of the film, less of a director's achievement on paper.
Directors I Would Have Nominated: I certainly would have found room for Sofia Coppola, who created something mesmerizing and a uniquely true vision in The Bling Ring (her films, unlike Payne's, continue to get more interesting and add to her overall filmography, even if less people and critics are seeing them).  I also would have found room for Spike Jonze's Her, a monumental look at the ways we learn to love and use technology to replace humanity in our lives.  And I'd finally like some sort of recognition for Richard Linklater's continued brilliance with the Jesse-and-Celine trilogy, all three of which were wonderful, with Before Midnight being the most bitter and perhaps the most "directorial" of the films.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar continued the trend of honoring Cuaron, with McQueen and Russell falling behind.
My Choice: I'm going to go with the consensus here-Cuaron's work in creating a unique filmic achievement in Gravity is too difficult to ignore, and why would you want to?  McQueen follows, with Marty, Russell, and Payne coming behind.

Those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Did you also find Cuaron to be the perfect choice for the winner, or were you hoping for McQueen?  Does anyone else feel that Payne and Russell continue to have less interesting things to say the more celebrated they become?  And why is Marty immune from this trend?  Share your thoughts, as well as your choice for Best Director of 2013, in the comments!

Past Best Director Contests: 2009201020112012

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

Who will follow Jared?
Sorry for the delay and lack of posts the past two days.  As I mentioned a few times last week, I have had the cold that has been going around most of Minnesota, and as a result I needed to spend the weekend in bed trying valiantly to get better (I also needed to organize my life a little bit, which got completely out-of-whack in the past few weeks, and the illness didn’t help).

That being said, I’ll give you a brief preview of the next couple of weeks on the blog before I start in our Oscar check-in.  While I will continue to strive to write two blog posts a day, I’ll actually be working on a few larger scale projects on the blog (as well as re-starting a writing project that won’t be on the blog, but I’m extremely excited to get started on again after dropping it for a couple of years), and so I cannot guarantee we’ll have two posts a day (the past two days will be an aberration though-we’ll always have at least one post a day!).

While the off-blog writing project will remain just for me to work on, the on-blog projects I will discuss right now.  We’ll be finishing up two of our series in the next two weeks, with both the 2013 OVP and the John’s Favorite Shows final two entries being created (those links click to the most recent installments-at the bottom of the posts are all of the past entries if you need to catch up).  We’ll also be doing an October check-in on the five main Oscar races (as well as perhaps some other Oscar categories, time permitting), and most importantly, we’ll be doing a series of gigantic posts detailing my predictions for the 2014 Midterm elections, which will be occurring two weeks from today (are you ready to vote-if you haven't gotten the message, the Democrats desperately need all of the votes they can get so make sure you're ready; if you're a Republican, I can suggest some movies that will be out then that could be worth checking out...kidding, kidding (kind of)).  This, along with a few film reviews are what you have to look forward to, so stick around!

We’re going to start with Best Supporting Actor mostly because that category is insane this year.  While the other categories have started to take shape, the Supporting Actor race feels wide-open, and definitely where a savvy Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin should be spending their time.  That’s because when Supporting Actor is wide-open, unlike the lead actor category, this field tends to settle on five names rather quickly.  Look at something like 2009’s Supporting Actor race for a hint: these five men were at one point part of a much larger lineup, but they became impenetrable despite all but Waltz and Harrelson at the time seeming like “sure-things.”

J.K. Simmons
While in October there’s really no such thing as a sure-thing, there are a few fellas that seem to be courting the "lock" banner.  J.K. Simmons in what looks like a co-lead role in Whiplash certainly feels like a nominee.  Major role from a character actor everyone likes, that’s the sort of thing this category was invented to honor, and it’s difficult to see him missing in the long-run.  The same could be said for Edward Norton in Birdman, a film that is getting terrific buzz and has an actor the Academy really liked once upon a time, making it pretty easy to see him score his third Oscar nomination.

Aside from these two, though, the field still has a lot of openings, mostly because a lot of men are either competing against costars or are in films whose strength with AMPAS hasn’t really been established yet.  That leaves room for a lot of names to rise to the top of the heap.

Toward the top, and ready to strike, in my opinion, would be Tom Wilkinson in Selma, a film that I still think could be a major player at year’s end if it campaigns properly, leaving Wilkinson (or his costar Tim Roth) room in the race.  Mark Ruffalo has a major film in Foxcatcher, but will they really nominate he and Carell but not Tatum?  That seems a bit of a question mark.  In the 1980’s, Robert Duvall would have been a certain nominee, and perhaps even a sentimental win for The Judge, but the film seems pretty “average” and didn’t do well with critics, so will they forget about him?

Domhnall Gleeson
Christoph Waltz has made a career out of getting nominated for lead performances in the supporting field, so if Amy Adams makes it for Big Eyes (still a bit of a tossup), we could well see Waltz do his thing.  Unbroken and Inherent Vice both have major casts, but at this point we can’t tell who the standouts will be (Domhnall Gleeson and Miyavi are competing for Unbroken, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, and quite randomly Martin Short are making a play from Inherent Vice).  Albert Brooks didn’t have great luck a few years back for Drive, but could try to disprove history with A Most Violent Year this cycle.  And then there’s Ethan Hawke, who might benefit from “why not me too?” in comparison to all of the attention being given to his onscreen ex-wife Patricia Arquette.

Then there are the names that it’s still early enough in the cycle to speculate on pulling an upset, even though common sense says that most of the fellas up-top are our contenders.  We have the two lads from Fury (Logan Lerman and Shia LaBeouf), though the former may be too novice and the latter too loathed to make the cut.  Harvey’s push for The Imitation Game could turn Matthew Goode into this year’s Alan Alda.  There’s also that chance that one of the men of Into the Woods (Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, or depending on how he is campaigned, James Corden) or Gone Girl (Neil Patrick Harris or Tyler Perry) could make the cut, though they would have to get to campaigning pretty quickly to cut away from the pack.

Finally, there’s the very special case for Michael Caine.  As we have profiled before, if Michael Caine were to pull off the miracle and get cited for Interstellar, he would become the first actor ever to be nominated in six separate decades.  For a beloved actor who loves Oscar campaigns (or at least is marvelously good at them), this may be too good of an opportunity to pass up.

My September Predictions: Lerman, Wilkinson, Simmons, Norton, and Duvall
My October Predictions: I’ll stick with Wilkinson, Simmons, and Norton, as all of them seem to be in a position to get nominated, but I’m dropping Lerman and Duvall for now (the former is too young and not getting enough buzz from his film’s debut, the latter in a film too easy to forget…though both are viable enough that they should stay in the conversation for now).  Part of me wants to pick Caine if only for the crazy trivia that it would bring, but instead I’m going to go with Josh Brolin and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom are on everyone who has actually seen the movies' lists, and as a result I feel may be in a better position to judge.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pick a Monster, Any Monster...

All right, I've noticed a bit of a drop this week in views on the blog, and so I figured I might shake things up a little bit today for our second post, and try to get a little bit more information out of you, the wonderful reader.

This month is October, and as a result, it's the month of Halloween.  Hollywood has a long history of making great movies for Halloween, from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to John Carpenter to Wes Craven we've frequently been treated to some great moments that make us go bump in the night.  However, when it comes to true classic horror, you cannot beat the magic of Universal Studios and its long history with the monster movie.

During its heyday, Universal Studios made dozens of monster movies, many of them revered classics.  We've profiled perhaps the most famous and beloved of these monsters, Frankenstein, here and here.  However, there is more than just Boris Karloff's famed interpretation of Mary Shelley's work to rely upon-we also have six other major monsters to investigate, and that's what I'm going to do this month, but you're going to help me pick which monster we end up profiling.  Click on the right for a poll of six of the other most famed monsters in Universal Studios collection-you can vote for which one of these six I should review in the coming weeks as we prepare for Halloween (I'll probably do the Top 2, time permitting and assuming enough people vote to get to that high!).  This is our first poll on the site, so if I see enough participation, I'll make this a monthly thing to get more interaction (bonus points go to whichever candidates might get a comment or two).

Let the voting begin!

Pride (2014)

Film: Pride (2014)
Stars: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Andrew Scott, George MacKay, Jessica Gunning, Ben Schnetzer, Paddy Considine
Director: Matthew Warchus
Oscar History: Oscar doesn't really go for crowd-pleasing British comedies anymore (it didn't even nominate the massively successful Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), but expect some solid BAFTA love, and maybe a Spirit nod or two.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

I have frequently been accused of not liking happy movies, and there's some credence to this accusation.  The reality is that I think that most happy movies don't have anything interesting to say-these films have unrealistic expectations, sets of stock, frequently underwritten characters, and oftentimes have comically bad villains that just don't exist in real life.  The movies can be fun, but they just aren't particularly likely to actually happen that way, and that really takes me out of the picture.

All this is to be said that I'm just as shocked as you that the third film that I have given five stars to from 2014 is a smile-on-your-face British comedy.  But there it is-this is why whenever someone asks me what genre of film that I love, I tell them that I like all kinds, because you can turn any sort of story into a great picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is about the UK Miners' Strike of 1984, one of many controversial aspects of Margaret Thatcher's "Iron Lady" reign in the United Kingdom (this film serves as a bit of a counterweight to those people, myself included, who felt that the Meryl Streep picture didn't give a proper indication of the former Prime Minister's tenure-if you want more of my thoughts on Thatcher, click here).  The film is toward the height of this strike, when the miners are clearly losing the battle with Thatcher (in a bit of a re-write of history, the eventual ending of this film ends up being a bit glossy, as most objective observers of this strike have concluded that Thatcher and the employers won this strike rather than the miners).

The film's (true-life) premise surrounds a group of lesbian and gay activists who, in hoping to create stronger alliances with potentially like-minded allies, decide to stand in support of the miners.  It makes sense, of course-both loathe Thatcher and her politics (Thatcher's attitude toward gays, and in particular the AIDS Crisis of the 1980's, has made her a much-hated figure in the gay and lesbian community), and as a result, they would make strong allies.  Of course, what works on paper doesn't often work in real-life, and that's initially true here.  A socially-conservative community in Wales accidentally accepts the money from the gays and lesbians, and then is stuck in a pickle when they realize that LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) has raised more money and supplies than any other group has, and as a result they need to show them Welsh hospitality.

What happens next is probably one of the more unexpected moments in the film-while you would expect the film to go along a traditional route of "first they don't accept, then they do," this is only a small part of the film.  A couple of musical scenes, including a deeply memorable one where the women of the village sing the classic pro-union song "Bread and Roses," sort of set up the unlikely but clearly logical alliance between the two groups.  Instead, what occurs in ensuing scenes is a look at how their struggles end up being quite similar.  We see a number of miners persecuted for being different, and the way that they have to beg to improve their life conditions is deeply de-humanizing.  We see the gays, struggling with the heavy fall of prejudice and the continual fog of HIV that hangs in the air.  It's a pretty tough subject for a comedy, but the balance is completely there-this is the sort of film that proves you can find humor in the darkest of times, and that even the trickiest of subjects can be handled with a light touch, but dignity.

It helps that the acting ensemble is absolutely terrific.  Led by veteran character actors Imelda Staunton (whom I always love, and is jolly good fun here) and Bill Nighy (whom I am usually indifferent toward, but who is subdued enough here that he genuinely surprises), we have an entire roster of amiable and deeply-felt performances.  Of particular note for me were Jessica Gunning, playing future Labour MP Sian James as a woman discovering her voice.  I love the way that she doesn't really need to change her opinion at the film's start (she always supports the gays), but instead needs to change her attitude toward letting her voice be heard.  Equally good is Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton, the gay leader who organizes LGSM.  Schnetzer is probably best known to American audiences for his work in The Book Thief, though he's almost unrecognizable from that film.  Here, he's added some adorable gay pudge (he's pretty much the definition of a cutie pie), but still finds ways to deeply connect with his character.  I also love the way that the characters are fleshed out by only giving snippets of what is happening to the characters in their side lives (the only character that really gets a proper side life is Joe, our window into this world and a young man coming out in a tumultuous time).  Instead, we get hints of relationship troubles, long-held secrets, and deeply-rooted fears.  One of the best scenes in the movie (and one of the best scenes in a film I've seen all year) happens when a cameo appearance by Russell Tovey as Tim, Mark's former lover, shows him drunkenly flirting with Mark.  At this point we assume we may have a love interest for the main character, but instead the film discusses Tim going on a "farewell tour."  We all know what he means when this relatively healthy young man says "farewell tour" because we aren't in a time where HIV was devastating young men across the world, but to Mark it is a wake-up call as to how short his life may be in a time where the government is ignoring his well-being.  These deeply real touches throughout the film add a depth to the picture that keeps it from being just a frothy delight.

We get even more of them from Joe (MacKay), who has his own struggles with where he stands in the gay rights movement, wanting to support it but living a life in the closet.  For any gay man out there who struggled with his principles but also wanted to maintain a facade as he inched out of the closet, Joe's story is a pretty damn accurate one, far more accurate than you usually see in a picture of this liking (contrary to some beliefs, most people don't fall in love with a man and then they come out-they test the waters and tell friends and try to become accustomed to their new open lifestyle before that happens, eventually coming out in a pretty messy fashion to their family).  The scene at the end when Joe walks out on his parents, realizing that they may never see him again-devastating, but definitely real considering the time and the horrid belief system of the era.

I will weigh in before I go on the MPAA controversy surrounding this picture, which I'll admit I had forgotten until I researched a couple of points about the film, but I am aghast as to how this movie got an R-rating.  There is no sex, no significant profanity, and the closest it comes is a brief (fully-clothed) make-out session between Joe and a man he meets at a bar.  Coupled with the Love is Strange rating earlier this year, it's hard not to consider the MPAA pretty damn homophobic, and there's really no way you can convince me otherwise.

We'll end on that note, though with Pride I feel like I could talk for days about this movie, and hopefully you've caught it (if you haven't, what are you doing reading this article-get to the movies and see it immediately).  For those that have, what'd you think?  Did you tear up (after Boyhood, this is the first film to make me cry all year at the movies)?  Did people cheer at the movie (this was the first time all year where I saw a movie where there was applause and cheering at the end of the picture, which was deeply touching considering the subject matter and the way that something so unlikely doesn't seem possible in today's polarized political environment)?  And what did you think of the overall picture-was it a wonderful throwback to the 1990's-style Full Monty pictures, or did you find it too schmaltzy?  Share in the comments!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ranting On...the Extinction of the Red-State Democrat

State Sen. Jason Carter (D-GA), one of several red state Democrats
running competitive races this year
It's Friday, and that means it's time for a rant, though I must say that in this week of me struggling with being sick (I'm still there, but am, knock on wood, feeling a little bit better today as opposed to the past three days) I've been ranting quite a bit this week.  Still, though, Friday rants are one of those things I love to do on the site, and since we haven't had a political post yet today, that seems to be an appropriate avenue.

I have to say that most of the interesting things to be said about this election have been said.  Right now it's primarily about watching the polls whether they are starting to trend toward the Republicans (KS/NC Senate) or the Democrats (IA/GA Senate) and waiting to vote.  But voting is still something that I want to discuss, because 2014 is starting to look more and more like a last stand of sorts for a state's minority party, particularly when it comes to Democrats.

Looking at the Senate races in particular, there are currently twelve Democratic senators that represent states that were won by Mitt Romney, a staggering seven of which are up for reelection this year (the seats currently held by Sens. Hagan, Pryor, Landrieu, Begich, Johnson, Walsh, and Rockefeller).  Everyone has talked about how this is the reason that the Senate is so terribly in play this year, and they're right, but there's something lost in that sentiment: is this the end of the ballot-split or the minority party being competitive?

Looking a few years back, particularly for Democrats, this wouldn't have been the case.  Immediately following the 2000 election of George W. Bush, when there was a 50/50 Senate (a theoretical possibility for a few weeks from now), the Democrats had twenty seats in Bush states, while the Republicans had nine seats in Gore states.  Now that number is down considerably, with Democrats only having twelve (though it's worth noting that Republicans still have nine).  However, it's theoretically possible that after November's election, all seven of those above seats could go to the Republicans, giving the Democrats only five Romney state Senate seats (for the curious, they are currently held by Sens. Heitkamp of North Dakota, Donnelly of Indiana, McCaskill of Missouri, Tester of Montana, and Manchin of West Virginia, all five senators who were elected or reelected in 2012).

The reality is that 2014 may be the last stand of the ballot split at the ballots, and not just in the Senate.  Despite historically being able to compete on pretty conservative territory with Blue Dog Democrats, the House has seen the basic extinction of the Blue Dog, and with Reps. Mike McIntyre and Jim Matheson both retiring (and Rep. Nick Rahall potentially destined for defeat), the most conservative district held by a Democrat could shift from a Cook PVI of R+16 all the way down to a R+9.  In fact, of the seven Democrats running for reelection in districts that Mitt Romney won, the only one that seems pretty confident of returning is Patrick Murphy in Florida-18.  Theoretically the rest of them could be wiped out this election.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN)
This is part of a larger, more cohesive approach that can in part be blamed on Citizens United.  In the past a congressman like, say, Collin Peterson in Minnesota could focus most of his campaign on retail politicking, relying on years of goodwill in a rural district in order to hold his district.  Now, though, with multi-millionaires able to control specific attacks against incumbents, someone like Peterson is forced to run a digital and televised campaign, exposing his associations with national Democrats.  This is in part why the years of voter approval built up by Peterson (and the likes of Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor) don't seem to amount to as much this year.

The Republicans are not immune to this situation, they just aren't quite getting it this year.  Thanks to a pretty solid anti-Obama wave sweeping the country, it's near certain that more Republicans will represent Obama-won House and Senate seats come January, but in 2016, this is probably going to come back to bite them in the butt.  Even if the Democrats lose seats like Maine-2 or Massachusetts-6, two years from now they're almost assured to be competitive in getting them back, as a Hillary campaign would likely have strong coattails.  This is also why Republicans have to be a bit nervous about the longevity of their Senate majority-all but two of their Obama-state senators are up for reelection in 2016 (for the continually curious Sen. Heller of Nevada is up in 2018 and Sen. Collins of Maine, who has managed to be the bizarre exception to this rule, and is cruising to a win in a few weeks).

This may also be why Democrats in red states should be far more excited to vote than they clearly are: this is potentially their last chance to make a major difference.  Those seven Senate seats, coupled with competitive races in Kansas, Georgia, and Kentucky in the Senate, are probably the last time the Democrats will ever be competitive in so many red states, at least until current voting trends start to change.  Couple that with competitive gubernatorial races in Georgia, Kansas, and Alaska and you see that this is one of those last elections where the minority in these red states could still make a difference if they get out and vote in large numbers.  I frequently pity blue state Republicans and red state Democrats, since they frequently are shutdown by simply not being the majority in their state, but not this year.  The fate of three governor's races and a half dozen Senate races will be decided by whether or not ticket-splitters and the Democratic minority are able to get out to the polls.  In a few weeks, we'll find out if this is the end of the red-state Democrat.