Thursday, May 21, 2015

The State of the Race: Best Actress

It's never too early to talk about Oscar, at least in my mind, and based on some of the reactions out of Cannes this past week, journalists tend to agree.  The recent spate of buzz is from the Best Actress race,  where Emily Blunt's Sicario is gaining raves and Oscar talk.  This makes sense, of course, as Blunt is the position in her career where Oscar seems destined to call.  At 32, she's at roughly the right age for both global superstardom (most major female stars ascend sometime between about 28 and 35), and has been receiving accolades everywhere except for the Kodak.  She has the weirdly dubious distinction of having four Golden Globe film nominations without a single Oscar nomination (only nine actors in history have ever done this), and they've been all over the place, from scene-stealing in The Devil Wears Prada to playing a monarch in The Young Victoria to the lead in a major musical in Into the Woods (also Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which...was in a weak year for comedy).  Blunt seems destined to be in this year's Oscar/Globe conversation once again, and I'm starting to feel may be one of the big five.

But who else is going to be amongst one of our favorite categories?  That's the question, and like most years, it's starting to look more and more like it's just going to be a repeat of names, with Blunt being an obvious exception (and potentially, as a result, gaining a leg-up in taking an actual trophy).  Most of the names that I'm seeing pop up are former winners.  Toward the top of that list is Cate Blanchett in Carol, which she is currently making the rounds for in Cannes and is gaining loads of headlines for her lesbian sex scenes with Rooney Mara, but I suspect toward the end of the year the "daring" of those headlines will pay off when she vies for her seventh Oscar nomination.  Joining her could be another constant presence at the Oscars recently named Jennifer Lawrence, who is doing her third turn in a David O. Russell movie with Joy.  While all things are true until they're not, it's worth noting that Lawrence scored nominations for both of her most recent Russell films, and this is a period film which is something that Oscar tends to gravitate toward-three years between Oscars is actually pretty common-could Lawrence be battling it out for a second trophy?

Other former winners in the conversation include Meryl Streep (when is she not?), who has yet another musical-comedy style role in Ricki and the Flash.  The trailer wasn't my favorite, to be honest (it looked pretty damn generic), but Meryl is typically lightning and she managed to get nominated for Music of the Heart, so counting her out is ALWAYS a bad idea.  Julianne Moore would probably be at the top of the heap were she not also last year's winner, as Freeheld has lots of baity hooks (cancer, lesbian, real life), though it remains to be seen if she can be nominated as Best Actress while her equal screen-time partner Ellen Page goes supporting (no pair of actresses have been nominated for Best Actress in the same film since 1991's Thelma & Louise, though I would LOVE to see that run end this year with Freeheld and Carol both on the table).  Honestly-we could be in a weird situation where the last four winners of the category and Blunt are all competing for the actual trophy.  However, there's a few longer shot former winners in Charlize Theron (The Last Face), Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker), Angelina Jolie (By the Sea), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Marion Cotillard (Macbeth) in the conversation as well.

Still, we could see a few former supporting nominees emerge from the top of the heap if the iron is hot. Two in particular have gained real traction, and couldn't have more diverse career paths.  Saoirse Ronan, only 21 years of age, could be looking at a second nomination to follow-up her childhood nod for Atonement (thus becoming the first actor to be nominated as both an adult and a child since Jodie Foster) for Brooklyn, a film about the Irish immigrant experience that got raves out of Sundance this past season.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Lily Tomlin, who is definitely having a moment right now in pop culture: she just won the Kennedy Center Honor, is starring in a new series from Netflix with her 9 to 5 costar Jane Fonda, and at 75 is getting her first lead role in ages with Grandma, a movie that got her huge triumphs out of Sundance.  It's worth noting that it's been forty years since her first Oscar nomination, which is one year longer than the time span between Helen Hayes two Oscar nominations (I believe this would give Tomlin the record-someone call me out in the comments if this isn't correct), giving a lot of compelling evidence for the popular Tomlin to actually win if she manages to pull through the season with a hit.  The only other former nominee that has a decent shot at a nomination is Carey Mulligan, who is getting strong reviews for Suffragette, but it's always hard to make bets on British issue pictures, as we saw with Made in Dagenham a few years back

Rounding out the list are a few longer shots that haven't been nominated before.  Sight unseen (this is always major guesswork this early in the season) it doesn't appear like anyone has the kind of advantage that Blunt does to gain the status of "Oscar nominee," but a few women are trying.  Toward the top of the list, joining Tomlin in the "career honors" section is Charlotte Rampling, whose film 45 Years got picked up by Sundance Selects and the iconic English star won the Best Actress prize at the Berlinale this past year.  Another actor trying for "career honors" is Blythe Danner, who has had more luck in recent years with stage and television, but is an actor who has worked with EVERYONE and has the potential for a sleeper hit coming out soon with rave reviews for I'll See You in My Dreams headed to Gwyneth's mom (and you know that Paltrow would be out pushing hard for her mom with the press).  Amongst the younger set is Alicia Vikander, who could be either lead or supporting in The Danish Girl, though the actress has eight films out in 2015, so she could cancel herself out all-over-the-place or could end up doubly-nominated-it's too soon to tell.  Finally, you can never entirely count-out a musical biopic, and Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Nina Simone could be catnip to Oscar voters provided the film gets a distributor.

Those are kind of where we're at right now for Best Actress-what are your thoughts?  Who do you think emerges from this pack and makes it to the final five?  What performances are you most excited for?  And do you think this is Emily Blunt's year?  Share in the comments!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

5 Thoughts on Yesterday's Elections

It's Wednesday which usually means that we do an entertainment article, but I wanted to weigh in on some of yesterday's primaries, as it appears that we have one of our rare "5 thoughts" article opportunities considering it's an off-year election.  Here are my thoughts on yesterday's elections...

Matt Bevin (R-KY)
1. The Kentucky Republicans are in a Quagmire

The biggest news yesterday was in the Bluegrass State, where the Republican Party has developed a pickle.  The primary, a three-way race between Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin, and businessmen Hal Heiner, was upended a few weeks ago when allegations of emotional and physical abuse against Comer, the establishment candidate, were levied by an old girlfriend.  As a result, Bevin and Heiner gained significantly, with the former gaining enough to be in the lead, after all votes were counted, by a miniscule 83 votes.  This is a staggeringly close election that will surely go to a recount, but the Republicans are now left with a pretty badly-beaten frontrunner.  You either have Comer, who will be targeted because of the abuse charges and may lose moderates if they gather steam or more exes come out of the woodwork, or you'll have Bevin, who created a huge issue in last year's primaries when he challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and then refused to endorse him after he lost.  McConnell has made no bones about loathing Bevin and as the GOP's key powerbroker in the state could tacitly endorse Bevin but not provide support, essentially giving the governor's race to Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who after two failed bids for Congress, is probably on his last shot at winning a major office, and this is looking more and more like his best shot.

2. The Governor's Race Matters Downballot

Not only does the governor's race matter in part because of who will run the state and also because the Democrats have had enormous difficulty in the South in holding or picking up seats (Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear is the only Southern state governor aside from from Virginia's Terry McAuliffe to be a Democrat, and has to retire), but it's one of the few states that still has a pretty robust bench for the left.  However, with most of the constitutional officers term-limited, this has left the Democrats vulnerable on this front. Having Conway victorious at the top of the ballot could help reelection bids by up-and-comers like State Auditor Adam Edelen and everyone's favorite triply-named Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, as well as assist an open seat bid for Attorney General by incumbent Gov. Beshear's son Andy.

Attorney General Jack Conway (D-KY)
3. Rand Paul is Watching Too

Perhaps no one is paying more attention to the race than Sen. Rand Paul, who is up for reelection in 2016, but also has his designs on the White House.  As a result, he's been trying to push a piece of legislation across the governor's desk that would allow him to run for both offices at once.  However, Gov. Beshear, who is aware that the Democrats would have a better shot at the seat if it were open (and he himself might even run if that were the case) has said no dice.  If Jack Conway ends up becoming governor, there's a 100% chance he'll say the same thing to help out Beshear or another Democrat (perhaps even Grimes again), putting Paul in a position similar to Marco Rubio in Florida where he can't have his office and run for a higher one too.

4. Republicans Gain in Florida

The evening wasn't all bad news for the Republicans, as they won a major race in the Sunshine State.  Republican Lenny Curry ended up ousting incumbent Mayor Alvin Brown in Jacksonville, the state's largest city.  Curry was able to use Jacksonville's rising crime rates (an issue that is resonating in a lot of big-city mayoral races, so this could be a canary-in-the-coal-mine situation) as leverage against Brown to win back the mayor's office, which has been held by only one Democrat in the past thirty years: Alvin Brown.

5. Jim Kenney Victorious in Pennsylvania

Democratic City Councilman Jim Kenney emerged victorious from a crowded primary field to win the nomination for the left, defeating State Sen. Anthony Williams. Kenney was seen as the more progressive of the two candidates, and is all but assured the win in the heavily blue Phuladelphia. Williams performance was pretty underwhelming for an African-American candidate in Philly, particularly after the robust turnouts for John Street and Michael Nutter over the past two decades. Kenney's win is also a victory for NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who heartily endorsed him and has been trying to expand his nation reach for a theoretical run for higher office.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Russ Feingold and Winning After Losing

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
This past week, Sen. Russ Feingold made a major announcement in Wisconsin, announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.  Sen. Feingold ran for and lost the seat six years ago, but seems determined to win his former seat, passing on perhaps more robust opportunities for the Senate in 2012 and the governor's mansion in 2012/2014.  This comes on the continued heels of Sen. Mark Begich persistently putting himself into the conversation for the 2016 Alaska Senate race, as well as amidst efforts to recruit Sen. Kay Hagan to run once again in North Carolina after a close loss in 2014.  Even former Sen. Evan Bayh, who retired in 2010, is being pushed to consider a comeback in the Hoosier State after the retirement of Sen. Dan Coats.  All of this has made me wonder-does being a former senator actually help you in reclaiming a Senate seat, or are all of these candidates faded glory, perhaps more likely to have a repeat of their previous defeats than have success at the polls next November?

It's an interesting question on-paper, after all, since these candidates all have won, sometimes multiple times, in their home states but with the exception of Bayh (who retired), they all have their most recent attempt at higher office being a loss.  In the cases of Hagan and Begich, they both were at the mercy of the weirdly cyclical swing we've seen between presidential and midterm elections in recent years.  Both senators defeated incumbent Republicans, both icons of the party (Elizabeth Dole, former presidential candidate, and Ted Stevens, President Pro Tempore of the Senate) during a huge wave election in 2008, though it's worth noting both candidates outperformed President Barack Obama in their home states.  Then they both got tied down by the President in 2014, when the Midterms resulted in massive losses for the Democrats (not just in their states but with a staggering five incumbent Democrats losing that cycle, ending a recent trend of incumbent Democrats having robust success at winning reelection).  With Sen. Feingold, it's a little different.  After defeating two-term U.S. Senator Bob Kasten (despite Bill Clinton only winning a plurality of the vote in the state in 1992), Feingold survived cycles both good (1998) and bad (2004) for the Democrats with relative ease.  It was only in 2010, when many claim he realized too late that he was running in a close election, that he finally faltered to someone with polar opposite views to his, becoming one of two Democratic incumbent senators to lose in the massive onslaught of 2010.  Finally, it's worth noting that while Sen. Bayh didn't lose in 2010, he did avoid an election many thought would be a tough challenge for him and that his seemingly competent Democratic successor, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, ended up being crushed in the general election.

As a result, the Democrats running (or potentially running) for the Senate in 2016 have to find a way to recapture what caused them to win in the first place while avoiding the mistakes of their losses.  They have what will surely be a more even-handed cycle than 2010 or 2014, provided that Hillary Clinton doesn't bomb on the campaign trail.  Feingold, in particular, has the comfort of knowing his state has gone Democratic since 1988, so there's a strong possibility that he'll have a top-of-the-ticket that will be going with Sec. Clinton (this, plus Sen. Ron Johnson's approval ratings, are why I think the Democrats' best shot at winning back a seat will be in the Badger State).  However, they also have to take a hard-look at their past candidacies and realize that vendettas, pettiness, or especially wiping away mistakes based simply on "the cycle" is not going to fly.  Feingold in particular ran too late in the contest, relying on past performance and the dynamics of his light blue state to carry him past the victory line-that's not going to work in modern digital campaigning, and he'll be a particularly interesting case study in the post-Citizens United world due to his longtime association with campaign finance reform.

Looking at past examples, though, we realize that there are rare cases where you can win back a Senate seat after losing an election.  The most recent example of this is Sen. Slade Gorton.  Gorton, like many of these candidates, was a victor as a result of a wave (the 1980 Reagan landslides), defeating an iconic longtime senator in Warren Magnuson (who was President Pro Tempore at the time).  Six years later, though, the conditions were toxic for Republicans and being in a blue state wasn't going to help him much, as Rep. Brock Adams crushed him.  Two years later, he came and won the state's Senate seat despite Gov. Michael Dukakis winning at the top of the ticket (both elections were close).  Gorton went on to serve two more terms in the Senate before permanently being retired by Maria Cantwell in a microscopically close election in 2000.

It's worth noting that Gorton's feat is rare.  Before him the last senator to win after losing was Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, and he lost in a primary, not a general election.  Other men like Kent Conrad, Frank Lautenberg, and Dan Coats all won Senate seats after giving them up, but they did so after retiring, not after losing the election.  More often-than-not, senators tend to lose if they've lost before (though, quite frankly, usually they don't run again to begin with).  Recent examples include Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who, like Feingold, gave up easier shots at returning to office (most people agree that Boschwitz would have had a cleared field in 1994 had he run and considering the national climate almost certainly would have won, similarly to Feingold in 2012, but decided to push for an unsuccessful attempt at beating the man who defeated him).  Other senators, it should be noted, tend to sort of be jokes when they run again-people like Larry Pressler and Bob Smith have run for seats after losing, but they ended up being wildly unsuccessful.  Even iconic senators like Walter Mondale have missed out on opportunities to win after retiring.

Still, though, it's worth noting that duplicating Gorton's success isn't impossible, particularly if Hillary Clinton does well.  It's within the realm of possibility that she wins Wisconsin and either wins or comes close to winning North Carolina, which would be a similar situation to Gorton in 1988.  Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Democrats in these states is the fact that Gorton won an open seat, not defeating an incumbent.  The last time an incumbent lost reelection and then defeated another incumbent was in 1948, when Iowa Sen. Guy Gillette came off a loss in 1944 (due to initially declining support to Great Britain prior to Pearl Harbor) to win during the 1948 Truman victories.  That's a long time to go between defeat and victory, though as we constantly learn, history has a way of being the rule until it doesn't.  Still, Feingold, Hagan, and Begich all have a pretty steep hill to climb if they want to reach the World's Most Exclusive Club again.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

Film: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Skylar Astin, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Oscar History: Well, it does have an original song by Jessie J, and it made $70 million its opening weekend (that's insanity for this style of film), but I sincerely doubt it.  Expect boffo MTV Music Award nominations though.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Acc-hello!  I spent most of Sunday viewing entertainment (hitting a Netflix movie, two movies in theaters, and then two crazy episodes of some of my favorite shows on the air), so we've got quite a few new reviews out this week, but we'll start with the movie that you're most likely to have seen this past weekend: Pitch Perfect 2.  The film went colossal at the Box Office, scooping up an impressive $70 million domestically, becoming the first sequel since Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me to out-earn its predecessor's entire run in the first weekend.  I'm hoping as a result that Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson were smart enough to ask for back-end cash.  However the question isn't just if it's popular, but if it's any good.  Shall we investigate?

(Spoilers Ahead) As you may recall, I quite liked the original film,  While the film was hardly high art, it was ridiculously fun, anchored by bravura work from Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, and a totally crushable piece of boy-next-door from Skylar Astin.  Three years later, not much has changed and the girls we fell in-love with as freshmen are now back as seniors (never mind that almost all of the principle women are in their thirties or thereabouts, so playing 22 is a bit of a stretch).  The film follows how a wardrobe malfunction with Fat Amy (Wilson) results in them being banned from performing in the national tournament, and can only compete at the World Competition.  Throw in a German a capella supergroup to compete against (headed by YouTube DJ Flula Borg) and you've got yourself a sequel that looks an awful lot like the original.

This is probably where the film takes its hardest hits, but not in the way you're thinking.  The film is very much similar, almost to the point of earning comparisons to The Hangover franchise, to the original film, but there's enough territory here to mine that it actually doesn't feel awful.  The comedy is still relatively funny-you have the hilarious banter between John Michael Higgins and director Elizabeth Banks (who wouldn't want them to do an in-character DVD commentary...actually why is this not a thing, period?), the wonderful dork-a-tude of Kendrick and Astin, and the perfection that is Rebel Wilson, who can make literally any sentence funny with strong delivery.  Putting her with Adam DeVine's Bumper is wonderful, mostly because DeVine is one of the rare comic performers that can hope to keep up with her.  The music is all strong, and this familiarity, while potentially lethal if they wanted to make a third film, is still fresh enough in a second film to not feel tired.

The problem lies in the new elements, almost all of which fail.  Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar nominee, plays a fresh-faced Bella who has dreamed of her a capella future her entire life, but is trying WAY too hard.  She's got a fine enough voice, but when you compare her star charisma to that of Kendrick's or Wilson's it's not even comparable, and I feel like they could have found a stronger unknown to take this space, as it felt very similar to when Glee added new characters onto the show.  The same can be said for Chrissie Fit's Flo, who while admittedly funny at some points, wears a pretty thin welcome and borders onto the offensive on occasion.  David Cross, playing a bizarre Rip-Off host also falls flat.  Honestly, the only additions I found interesting were Keegan-Michael Key as Beca's boss, who has a hilarious series of interactions with Shawn Carter Peterson as his hapless hipster assistant and Flula Borg as the crazy-rapping leader of the arch-rival a capella group, who is so good I actually think he probably deserved to win the final showdown.  Also, Scott Hoying in Pentatonix is perfection, but he's onscreen for like twenty seconds and that's just because I'm in love with Scott Hoying.

All of this is to say that I liked this movie, but nowhere near as much as the original.  It has most of the spark and humor of the first film, but little of the shock and fails with the depth.  Therefore I'd recommend it, but only if you liked the original as there's nothing that's going to change your mind here.  At least those are my thoughts-how about yours?  What'd you think of this follow-up?  Are you all-ready for a Pitch Perfect 3?  Are you acc-excusing yourself from future installments?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Seven Thoughts on the Mad Men Finale

Well, there it is my friends-the finale of one of the great shows in American television.  Much like when Seinfeld or The Sopranos left us, there's a lot to absorb and parcel through, and part of me will spend a while trying to comprehend Matthew Weiner's larger message, but first, here are seven thoughts I had while watching last night's finale.

1. No sloppy goodbyes

If there's one thing that always seems forced and unpracticed and unnecessary in finales, it is that we spend too much time on giving every character a great big speech and something that sends off their relationships with other characters.  There was little of that here, and the ones that were there left things unsaid (Betty/Don, Pete/Peggy, and of course Peggy/Don).  I will admit to crying three times in the night, though, during these goodbyes (both Betty/Don, giving January Jones a pretty wonderful send-off as well as Peggy/Don, ending the most meaningful relationship on the show, and finally Peggy and Stan, which brings us to...).

2. Roger and Marie?  Really?

The show gave into some fangirling when they decided that Peggy and Stan, who have had a Sam-and-Diane style flirtation for years now, should be together, and I get it, and I kind of loved it.  I admit that it would have been fun to see Peggy prove that she could be happy without a man, but we got that from another principle female character and let's face it-we kind of just wanted Peggy Olson to have it all.  But as a result of trying to find resolution to Roger, we see him end up with Marie?  I get the symbolism of him ending up with a mother when he lost his so young, but Roger's philandering and history with marriage doesn't bode well for either of them-this isn't what you'd call a particularly healthy-looking marriage, unless we see it as a way for Marie to have money once Roger dies of a heart attack from years of booze-and-cigarettes.

3. Joan Needs No Man

Peggy was never the ONLY independent woman on the show.  Joan, who spent so many seasons as the object of men's affections and trying to fit into a perfect mold of a homemaker, realized that work was her life, and she watched her real estate mogul walk out the door in a wonderful moment where we realized that Joan feels valued when she's doing a good job.  There was a brief squeal of glee from me when we thought that we'd see she and Peggy team up, but it made more sense for Joan to be her own boss while Peggy worked her way through the sexist sludge at McCann.  Still, this was a pretty awesome way to sendoff our Joanie.

4. LOVED the Quick Sendoffs

Again, I loved that we saw the likes of Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, and Meredith all get a brief moment, a quick aside, and nothing more.  These characters were always best as window-dressing in the episodes, and that's where they remained in this episode, without any a-characteristic asides.  Some of the funniest moments in the episode (and Mad Men frequently went for funny, particularly of the black comedy variety) involved these characters, with Meredith saying, "there are better places to work than here" without any sort of filter.  She initially annoyed the crap out of me but I grew to love her, which may have been the point.  Either way-I'll miss their little asides...even if Harry Crane is a jackass.

5. I'm So Glad I Didn't Have to Watch Betty Die

One of the great worries of the final episode would be how would they handle the Betty story.  Despite what everyone says about Rachel or Megan, I think that it was Betty, truly, whom Don loved the most (and vice versa) and I think she's the only person who would have ended his sojourn into the West.  However, I also loved that Sally put a quick kibosh on the arrangement, and that they didn't get a traditional goodbye (like so many times, they said they'd talk soon...and the reality is that they would-the show's characters all live past this, even if we didn't see what happened next), though they both resisted saying "I love you" even if the name Bertie clearly meant that that was what had been said.  Kudos to both January Jones and Jon Hamm for selling the crap out of this scene several seasons after their marriage ended.

6. Dick Whitman as a Hippie

I buried the lead, you said?  I skipped the entire part where Don Draper became a hippie?  Some people will say this was wildly out-of-character, and those are the same sorts of people who look at Sex and the City and think it was just about the clothes or Lost and think it was just about what caused the mysteries of the Island.  The reality is that Don Draper has spent the entire series trying to find himself, and it makes sense that Dick Whitman, the man he abandoned in Korea, might be an entirely different puzzle to solve.  We see him start to overcome his past with some truly bravura acting (if this episode isn't the writers of the show begging for Jon Hamm to get an Emmy, I don't know what is) and him leaving the 1960's behind, just as the series did, to become-what?  A future peace-and-love enthusiast?  Or a meditator that lives on Madison Avenue?  We don't know, but we got a hint with...

7. "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"

The show ended with a multilayered answer, giving us a question mark similar to The Sopranos so many years ago.  With the iconic Coke ad as the ending, we can't quite tell what Matthew Weiner is saying, but perhaps he's saying everything.  Perhaps he's saying that Don used his experiences in the commune to create this capitalist propaganda, selling a sugary drink to the masses by exploiting hippie culture (we get a hint with the red-and-blonde-haired girl with braids being in both the ad and at the inn's desk).  Or is it a commentary on how advertising still exploits us today, trying to answer the question of "did you buy it?"  Or is it simply an ambiguous fade-to-black, acknowledging that ending a series this massive is too difficult to do without offending some so you instead choose the abstract?  Either way, it made for conversation, which is honest of everything on Mad Men, and so it's at least true-to-form.

Those were my thoughts-there are others, though (Pete off in married bliss, Betty's plans for the kids, the entire throwback to the Anna years)-share your thoughts on these or anything I highlighted above in the comments!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Everybody's Linking for the Weekend

Whew-I'm actually kind of on a tear this weekend, in terms of productivity after a week filled with some nice reflection, a lot of projects getting kicked off the ground, and most importantly, progress (isn't that just a wonderful word when you can use it in a sentence and not precede it with the words "we need to make"?).  As a result, we're getting this post out nice and early this Saturday morning.  Here's a roundup of what you may or may not have read about on the internet this week and what my thoughts are on it:

On Entertainment...

-Jennifer Lawrence is proving that she's not going to just brush aside the Sony leaks, reportedly nabbing $20 million to star in the upcoming Sci-Fi space film Passengers, more than double what her costar Chris Pratt will be making.  This came in response to the fact that she made less money on American Hustle than her costar Jeremy Renner, who is hardly what'd you'd consider a movie star in her caliber. I'm liking this trend, and though some may quibble about millionaires fighting over who gets the biggest mansion, it draws an illustrative, real-world point about how women in the real world are still making less than men.  The same thing happened with Charlize Theron recently and Lily Tomlin/Jane Fonda called out their show's producers for giving their supporting male costars the same paychecks as the titular leads.

-I mean, we have to weigh in on Harry Shearer leaving The Simpsons and what that might mean for one of television's most venerable series.  Initially I was on Shearer's side out of principle-he's a wonderfully-talented performer who has been with the show for decades, providing life to everyone from Mr. Burns to Ned Flanders to Principal Skinner.  But after reading about the deal and what producers Al Jean and James L. Brooks are offering, Shearer is either being ridiculous or disingenuous.  $14 million for two years is an astronomical amount of money for an actor that isn't even appearing onscreen, and while initially Shearer was complaining that he wouldn't be able to work on other projects, that doesn't seem to be the case and it appears that he can actually quite literally phone-in his performance three hours a week every week.  That's nuts, and so either he is holding out for more money (which seems intensely greedy) or is just sick of the show, which is understandable but he needs to say that so that people like Jean and Brooks aren't being demonized for no reason by the fans on social media.  Either way, this is unfortunate and could result in his costars and fellow voice actors getting the short shrift in future years if he is replaced and no one seems to care (cost-cutting and all that).

-Agnes Varda, the legendary French New Wave director, will receive the Honorary Palme d'Or, a rare honor given to a director who has made a significant impact on the world but has never won the Palme d'Or.  Past recipients include Bernardo Bertolucci, Woody Allen, and Clint Eastwood.  Varda, the director of classic films like Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond (that click you should be hearing is you opening another link to Netflix to start adding titles) is the first woman to win the honor.

On Politics...

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA)
-The Democrats continued to rack up more candidates, though I do feel like we're still shopping in the return bin a bit too much in 2016.  Both former Senator Russ Feingold (WI) and former Rep. Baron Hill (IN) are running for their states' respective Senate seats, and while neither is a bad candidate, both of them come with serious "loss" baggage, as they both were defeated in 2010.  They join former Gov. Ted Strickland (OH) and former Rep. Joe Sestak (PA) (also both losers in 2010) on the DSCC's roster, in addition to potentially former Sen. Kay Hagan (NC) and former Sen. Mark Begich (AK) (both losers in 2014) as theoretical candidates for the Senate next year.  We'll investigate this a bit further in the week, but I am a little concerned about the Republicans have a red carpet ready message about running former losers, particularly with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket.

-In other news, potentially good for the Democrats, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA) is making a run for the Senate seat currently held by retiring incumbent Barbara Boxer.  While this initially seems like bad news for Democrats who will have to endure a rough primary, it could set up a win-win for Democrats in the Golden State.  The primary is structured so that the top two candidates advance regardless of party.  Provided that Sanchez and Attorney General Kamala Harris remain the only big name Democrats in the race (a big if, particularly considering Sanchez's colleague Xavier Becerra may also jump into the race) and that Republicans don't coalesce around a strong candidate (a slightly smaller if, though several members of the state legislature are still making waves about the race), it could be Harris vs. Sanchez in the general.  With Hillary Clinton certain to win the state's electoral votes and with two Democrats battling it out for the Senate, you might be in a situation where Democrats are compelled to get to the polls to weigh in on Sanchez v. Harris but Republicans are not, theoretically costing Republicans in critical down-ballot House seats like CA-10, 21, and 24).

-I know I am a teensy bit late on this front, but Carly Fiorina's playing the sexism card on Katie Couric has been sitting with me in the wrong way and that seems to be a theme this week.  I am positive that in order to be a CEO Fiorina has had to put up with sexism-I'm not naive here-but the question of whether you're just running for Vice President has been posed countless times to male candidates ranging from John Edwards to Bill Richardson to even Martin O'Malley this year-it's not something that she's getting asked because she's a woman.  It's something she's being asked because she's grossly under-qualified to be the president and that's one of the only explanations for her running.

Shameless Self-Promotion of the Week...

-Reach out...for Jack Harries.

-YouTube Video of the Week...

-The YouTube Holy Trinity reunited to promote Mamrie's first book, so that's basically magic.  You learn in it which one of the Trinity cannot do impressions to save her life.


-Just One More...

-Yesterday was Endangered Species Day, which means that it's time to find some way to help save your favorite animal.  You'll be in good company, as Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close is leading a crusade to fight the endangerment of elephants through supporting President Obama's ivory ban.  She joins the conversation that has gotten more press since the release of Kristin Davis's The Gardeners of Eden last month.  For questions about the ivory ban, click here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

OVP: Tangerines (2014)

Film: Tangerines (2014)
Stars: Lembit Ulfsak, Giorgi Nakashidze, Elmo Nuganen, Mikheil Meskshi
Director: Zaza Urushadze
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Foreign Film-Estonia)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

A few years back, the Foreign Film Oscar race was upended when the Academy realized that it was sacrificing too many great films in its process, frequently picking banal and vanilla style films like, say, Babette's Feast while complicated work like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days got left on the ground.  As a result, the Foreign film race has actually been one of the most fascinating ones in recent years, with complicated and controversial films like Dogtooth and The Great Beauty showing up in the field.  This is why I was a bit surprised while watching Estonia's first nominated film, Tangerines, this past week on Tuesday (not to be confused with the iPhone-shot film about a prostitute that comes out later this year), as it is a film that feels more at-home in the Oscars of the 1980's.  It's about finding the good in all people regardless of their nationality, and takes place largely in a male-dominated society torn apart by war.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Ivo (Ulfsak) a poor farmer from Estonia living in war-torn Abkhazia, trying to get in a tangerine crop with his friend Margus (Nuganen).  The two encounter a pair of Chechen soldiers who try to intimidate Ivo but are unsuccessful, and they leave him alone.  Later in the opening, the Chechen soldiers get into a fight with three Georgian soldiers, whom they are fighting against, and only one from each side live: the Chechen Ahmed (Nakashidze) and Niko (Meskhi).  They are both severely injured and Ivo cares for both of them, watching as their hatred for each other blossoms into respect and then love.  By the end of the film, as can be expected, they are brothers-in-arms as Russian soldiers try to mistakenly kill Ahmed (assuming he is Georgian), and Niko saving his life, all-the-while sacrificing his own in the process when a downed soldier kills him.  The film ends with the enigmatic Ivo burying Niko near his son, who died early in the war (which is why he is unable to spend time with his children-too many memories) and Ahmed leaves having a different understanding for war and country.

The film in some ways is relevant because we still have wars like this.  We have not evolved enough to realize the futility and pointlessness of prejudice, and how ridiculously stupid it is to end life, which is already too short as it is, with violence and premature death.  So in that way I get why films like this are still being made, but on the other hand all artistic evidence already exists to prove this movie redundant.  My enemy is my brother has been an artistic motif in film since at least All Quiet on the Western Front, and in literature much longer than that.  There is no beat in this particular film that feels new or newly urgent for a modern audience.  We don't see a different kind of empathy that, say, juxtaposes Vladimir Putin's disregard for human life, and so this doesn't feel very specific for our times.  Perhaps more direct comparisons to Putin's occupation of Ukraine or the impending threat his government poses to the Baltics would have been a more appropriate way to modernize the film.

As a result, we get a pretty tepid cast of characters-no one in the film really resonates in a major way onscreen, particularly the masculine triangle that centers the film (seriously-we need some estrogen going on in this film where there are literally no female actors).  Ivo, Ahmed, and Niko are so stuck with two-dimensional portrayals you have to assume that the movie could have just called them the Estonian, the Chechen, and the Georgian and we wouldn't really know the difference.  Occasionally Margus, Ivo's friend who questions his actions and seems to be so ancillary I expected him to have more of a part, was interesting in a, "what role does the director think he's serving?" sort of way, but that's giving a lot of leeway to our director.  All-in-all, while this is by no means a bad movie (the only time I leave a film a one-star rating), it's not special or recommendation-worthy in any way, and so I'll only go with one additional star.

Those were my thoughts on this light, swift, and thin movie-what about yours?  Do you feel a different movie should have been Estonia's first shot at the prize?  Or were you in love with the minimalism of the movie?  Share your thoughts in the comments!