Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Begin Again (2014)

Film: Begin Again (2014)
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener
Director: John Carney
Oscar History: With Harvey behind the movie, I would suspect that we’ll see at least one nomination for Best Original Song, probably “Lost Stars.”
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Seven years ago (man, time flies), John Carney created something really special called Once.  I remember sitting in the theater of the movie, just letting the beautiful, epic music wash over me.  It was something to behold, and even though the stage musical could never be as good as the film (though Steve Kazee came close), that music was transcendent.

(Spoilers Ahead) So I was nervous headed into Begin Again, particularly after the first ten minutes.  This was not the film that I was expecting.  Once is a blue moon sort of situation, something you cannot possibly repeat and the sort of artwork that defines a person’s career for always (he can write a thousand books, and people will still think Stephen King’s best novel is The Stand).  But the beginning of this movie makes you worry you’ve stumbled into a truly tragic film.  Mark Ruffalo is overacting to the hilt as Dan (we get it, he’s an oblivious jerk, we don’t need it beaten into our head), and Catherine Keener once again is lost at the edges of a film (seriously-did she sign a compact with the devil after Into the Wild to only take uninteresting roles in movies-is that what getting nominated for Capote cost her?).

However, once we get into Gretta’s (Knightley) story, the film picks up, and we get the real centerpiece of the film: the music.  It’s hard to compare with the calming sea of The Swell Season, but we get close with the upbeat jazz of this film’s score.  I loved every time that we heard Gretta or her arrogant boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, perfectly cast in a role that knows his thespian limitations) open their mouths to sing.  The film is built around a really wonderful concept: that records are so overproduced that they need to get out of the studio, and so we hear the sounds of New York in the background.  The movie is at its absolute best whenever it is centering the plot around the music being created: Carney’s writing and directing clearly knows how to frame that up in a way to make each song go with the theme of the film and still feel special.

The music is enough, quite frankly, to recommend the movie.  It’s not just worth it to buy the soundtrack (though you’ll want to), but you also need to see how it comes alive in the plot.  The rest of the film, it must be said, never quite hits the high notes of the music and the musical numbers.  Ruffalo’s character never quite reaches “real” for me-he relies too heavily on clichés.  Ruffalo is an actor that I go hot-and-cold on: he’s nearly always entertaining, but there are moments onscreen when he thinks the work isn’t up to his level that his acting tends to suffer, and he can’t sell the clichéd scenes with his daughter in particular (it’s so odd, because his best work as an actor remains his misguided uncle scenes in You Can Count on Me, a modern masterpiece on-par with Once).   There are moments he’s there (the “date” with Knightley), but as a whole this feels like it should have gone to an actor with a little harsher edge, or one who can elevate so-so material (not just raise great material).

Knightley is better, though she too doesn’t always seem to understand the motives of her character.  Is she actually in love, or is she just pretending to be?  Is she just as shallow as her boyfriend (she gets into a kerfuffle late in the film that if you look at it objectively reeks of stubbornness)?  Knightley doesn’t always let these ideas percolate, but only seems to really come alive in the songs.  I actually quite liked Levine, but he doesn’t have the abilities that the other two actors do when they’re at their greatest and is merely fine when it comes to the actual performance (unlike Justin Timberlake, though, he was smart enough to start out with a role that he could actually pull off).  The best cast member, actually, is James Corden, who is utterly charming as Gretta’s befuddled, down-on-his-luck best friend.  He finds some really great side moments (does he love her, is he jealous of her ability?), and makes the most of a very small character (and makes his Steve seem like a character that you would genuinely root for Gretta to end up with over the main character and the handsome ex).

Overall, therefore, this is not Once.  This is not going to make the tops of greatest film lists and you won’t opine for it seven years from now when John Carney makes another musical.  But what I will say is that this, in a sea of summer blockbusters that went nowhere, is a refreshing film with plot, life, unpredictability, and most vibrant of all, music.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ranting On...Connor Franta Leaving o2l

YouTube personality Connor Franta
Hi!  I have recently gotten back from vacation (the last five days or so were blog posts that were written in advance, which is why hopefully none of you noticed), and as result of this, I have been missing in action on a couple of big stories and a few film reviews (we've got one great film in theaters and another that is out on DVD that I'll be tackling later this week, as well as diving further into the 2013 OVP -how have you been enjoying it so far)?

However, as I was in a car for many hours over the weekend and frequently found myself in front of a cell phone for most of that time, I figured it was time to dive into a YouTube story.  I could tackle Shane Dawson's new movie trailer, which, let's be honest here and I do love Shane, is not any good.  I mean, I really want Shane to be successful and clearly he has dreams of being a bigger director, but the film looks like a parody of a trailer-that's not a good sign at all.  Hopefully his television pilot for NBC that he signed a few months ago is in better shape.

But that clearly only lasted a couple sentences, so instead I want to talk about Connor Franta and his recent departure from o2l.  For those of you who don't follow YouTube culture, o2l stands for Our Second Life, and is essentially the "boy band" of YouTube (except for the most part the guys on the channel do not sing or least not well).  Like all boy bands, there are members who are more popular than others, and the most popular at the center of all of this was Franta, a very cute 21-year-old with a love of cats and a solid mastery of that androgynous sexuality that seems to be so en vogue amongst young male celebrities this day (he says he's straight, but comes across as perhaps not, so instantly appeals to straight women and gay men alike).

Franta's departure is interesting in the sense that all such things are interesting when a member of a group leaves, particularly when the group at least claims to want to stay together.  It had started to get to the point where Franta had nearly twice as many followers on his solo channel (all of the members of o2l have both their solo and their group channels), and so his leaving the group may in fact cause their breakup, as many people were likely still subscribed to the group's channel just to get more videos from Franta.  It does seem fairly clear that Franta can survive without this group mentality (he rarely collaborated anymore with his fellow o2l members and smartly had moved to the point where his second video was more in-line with his main channel video than his group video's format), but o2l may not be able to demand the fame it currently does without Franta.  He is, to get on terms that some non-YouTube subscribers may understand, the Timberlake of this group, and we all saw what happened to the rest of 'N Sync.

Franta's departure video (you can see it here), though, is troubling me.  For about five minutes Franta talked directly into a camera about his emotional troubles, about his struggles with not being the chipper, hyper personality that is in front of the camera.  It's a weird conundrum for someone to admit that the persona they are putting forward on YouTube is not really who they are, particularly since on this particular media platform, who you are (or who you project, rather) is entirely what is driving people to visit you.  People visit websites like Franta's (or Pewdiepie's, Shane Dawson's, or Grace Helbig's) not for the reasons they see a movie or TV show-they see it to spend five more minutes with a  personality they find appealing.  Even for channels like Tanya Burr's, which are about beauty tips, it's just as much about Burr's effervescent grace as it is re-creating a Kate Middleton look.  Franta breaking down that fourth wall is a fascinating look at how much acting goes on in something like his YouTube channel.

It also makes me worry for Franta, first from a pragmatic standpoint.  You cannot just flip the switch back after sharing something so clearly troubling to yourself-videos on YouTube last forever, and even tweens are going to question the next week whether or not your video about something random and quirky is really you-the fourth wall is there for a reason.  While Franta can probably get away with it this once, it could become a problem.  Shane Dawson has been going through a similar situation this year with his refusal to acknowledge that his bomb-dot-com project is extremely unpopular with his fans and he likely should quit doing the Sunday videos, particularly since guilt-tripping your audience is a horrible turn-off in terms of gaining repeat and return viewers.

However, I also worry for Franta himself.  This is clearly really troubling him, and while he hopefully has been saving his money, this won't last forever.  There's a reason that Tyler Oakley, Shane Dawson, and Grace Helbig are all trying to move into more traditional forms of media-it's less fickle than a fame source where you can just click a button and never interact with a person again.  Franta's appeal is largely based on his youthful good looks and quirky charm.  That's barely going to fly at 25, much less thirty.  There's a ticking clock on how long he can pull this off (most YouTube personalities, particularly those who are male and over 25, do not rely primarily on female viewers for their videos, which is the heart of Franta's fanbase, but instead on male viewers through gaming and comedy channels, expanding their shelf life).  He will likely have to enter the "real world" someday, and he now has a very personal video where he complains quite readily about how little fun his job is.  This video will show up in every google search anyone ever does of his name, and it's probably not the first thing he wants people to see (particularly those in a cutthroat entertainment industry where crazy strong work ethic-like that of, say, Tyler Oakley, is far more sought after).

So what I'm saying here is that while leaving o2l is probably best for Franta (though it will surely affect his fellow "bandmates" negatively), the way he did it was wrong.  Franta's confessional does not come across well, and though fangirls will rush to defend him right now (when he is in the do-no-wrong phase of his career), it's things like this that will make the more fickle fans of his work turn quickly in the future.

Monday, July 21, 2014

OVP: Original Song (2013)

OVP: Best Original Song (2013)

The Nominees Were...

"Alone Yet Not Alone," Music and Lyric by Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel, Alone Yet Not Alone (nomination was rescinded-we'll talk about it below)
"Happy," Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams, Despicable Me 2
"Let It Go," Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen
"The Moon Song," Music and Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze, Her
"Ordinary Love," Music and Lyric by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen (U2), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

My Thoughts: We now move into the sound tech categories, and to the fun of the Best Original Songs of 2013, which were, after years of the mundane and eyebrow-raising, actually quite fun.  The 2013 Best Original Song had not only the shock of an out-of-nowhere nomination that was later rescinded, it actually contained two songs that were major radio hits.  Let's listen in...

We'll start with the biggest of those radio hits.  "Happy" was the first Oscar-nominated song to hit Number One since Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" seventeen years earlier, a remarkable achievement considering during the 1980's Oscar-nominated songs were regularly some of the biggest chart-toppers on Billboard.  I hardly have to explain the song-it played in your ear constantly through the earlier part of the year.  The actual vocals in the song are exquisite, with Pharrell doing his best Curtis Mayfield.  The song also goes with the spirit of the film and is better than the movie.  It's fun, delightful, and a nice change of pace for a category that frequently has favored the somber in recent years.  Plus, it's just nice to have an actual hit in this race, adding some relevance to the category with the audience at home (and didn't you just love Lupita, Amy, and Meryl dancing with Pharrell in the song?).

The other major hit was from Frozen, that being "Let It Go."  Disney has had a long history of great climactic songs in their movies, and regularly win Oscars for them.  There's a reason for this, though.  Not only is a song like "Let It Go" quite musically strong and really fun to sing along to and listen to, but it's pivotal to the structure of the movie.  This category, in my opinion, isn't just about having a great piece of music, but also about finding a way to incorporate the song into the film.  There are only rare exceptions where an end credits song so well balances and adds to the film that it must be honored (like, say, "My Heart Will Go On")-most of the time it's just filler as you leave your seats.  Disney's songs add to the plot, and "Let It Go" is the pinnacle of the music in the film, showing when Elsa is putting her fears and past behind her.  It's a great scene in the film, and wonderfully sold by Idina Menzel's gravity-defying vocals.

An example of the opposite, where it's simply a song to clear the seats, would be "Ordinary Love."  This is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad song-it matches well with some of the more mellow U2 songs of the past decade and I'm surprised it didn't translate to more radio play.  However, the song doesn't really add anything to the film.  This is a movie in desperate need of some personality-it's dour, dry, and boring.  I complained about this in the review, but why was this not added throughout the movie as a theme, perhaps to give the push that Mandela is making onscreen seem more like a journey than a trudge.  Instead of that film-assisting task, this song is simply relegated to play while you find out who was the key grip, which helps no one.

Her certainly finds a way to push its song into the middle of the movie, and does it exquisitely.  While the Karen O version of the song plays over the credits, like "Moon River" before it, we get two different versions of the song to ponder in the film.  The song is a key moment in the romance between Theodore and Samantha, as Scarlett Johansson's breathy and delicate alto musters through the lyrics and we realize that they have fallen deeply in love.  It's a beautiful moment in a film brimming with them, and I love the way that the movie juxtaposes it with the more commercial version over the credits.  It also helps that the song is not only well-positioned, but a great little ballad.

The final nomination is the one that was infamously yanked from the nomination lineup.  I have maintained since it happened that "Alone Yet Not Alone" did nothing that larger films like The King's Speech and The Artist have been doing for years in their quests to win Oscar nominations and wins.  This nomination should not have been rescinded merely for a campaign violation because it seems far too arbitrary and for whatever the reasons (whether it was protesting the quality of the film or the subject matter), it seems extremely unlikely that if "Let It Go" had done what "Alone Yet Not Alone" did that we'd be seeing Disney lose their nomination, and so this was very unfair.

Therefore I'm going to consider it for the OVP, but not for very long.  The song and film are awful, and while it is certainly important to the plot of the actual film (it's sung multiple times in the movie, including in a pivotal scene late in the picture), it's a terrible piece of music, and quite frankly, I think I'd reach my "react only to the specific attribute of the film" limit (one of the goals of the OVP) if I had to honor such a horrendous movie.  Sounding like the sort of thing you'd hear on a 1 AM infomercial on PAX TV, this didn't deserve to lose its nomination, but it definitely didn't deserve to be nominated in the first place.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes love their musical celebrities in this category, though they oddly didn't realize that "Happy" would be getting a second major headwind (otherwise Pharrell surely would have been mentioned).  As it is, they continued the trend of not giving their trophy to the Oscar winner (they picked "Ordinary Love" over the only other AMPAS-cited number, "Let It Go").  They also found room for "Atlas" from Catching Fire (Coldplay) and "Sweeter than Fiction" from One Chance (Taylor Swift), both of which would have made considerably better choices than "Alone Yet Not Alone."  Finally they oddly featured "Please Mr. Kennedy," from Inside Llewyn Davis (the draw of Justin Timberlake being a nominee being too much for them) even though it's questionable on whether it's original or just a parody (Oscar deemed it ineligible).  I also question how anyone could cite the only really bad song in a film brimming with wonderful ones.  As for sixth place, I think it was probably Lana del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" which carries through The Great Gatsby and seemed certain to be nominated before Bruce Broughton entered the picture.
Songs I Would Have Nominated: I do miss the days when The Lord of the Rings and their great, movie-defining themes got nominated in this category, but alas Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" couldn't make the cut.  The same goes for The Civil Wars with their haunting "Finding North" in the documentary A Place at the Table.  If Melissa Etheridge can win for a documentary, this surely could have been nominated (it's not even just an end credits song!).
Oscar’s Choice: I suspect that the grand slam hit that "Happy" became after this nomination probably shook up this race enough to make it close, but "Let It Go" had months worth of momentum on its side, and Frozen was a colossal critical and commercial hit that surely needed two trophies, so it got them.
My Choice: I'm also going to be a sucker for the princess movie and give this to Frozen.  I'll follow it with Her, Despicable Me 2, Mandela, and way in the rear Alone Yet Not Alone.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  I'm sure there's someone out there who wants to make the argument to give this trophy to "Happy", so what's the case?  Is everyone else behind "Let It Go" or does someone want to vouch for another nominee?  Did anyone actually like Alone Yet Not Alone?  And what original song was the best in a movie in 2013?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Original Song Contests: 2009, 201020112012

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Living Cast Members of Classic Films, Part 3

A little under two months ago we did two of the more popular posts of the year (check them out here and here) on the blog, and I’ve been itching to add another installment to the series, so I figured why not today?  The pieces chronicled the Top 100 AFI movies of the Institute’s list of the greatest American films.  However, the AFI updated their list in 2007 with 23 new films that were moved into the category of the “best.”  Since we haven’t parceled through these 23 movies, I figured now is the time (for the complete updated list click here).  Let’s dive in (and as a reminder-for the purposes of this article we’ll limit to speaking roles in the film, though this isn’t an exact science and if you have any corrections, share them in the comments!)

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General
18. The General (1927)

Already we have to cheat a bit (silent movie and all), but as this film is from 1927 and as we chronicled before that very few actors from the Silent Era are still alive, it’s safe to say no person who appeared in The General is still with us.  The longest-living person in the film appears to be star Marion Mack, who played Annabelle Lee, who died at the age of 87 in 1989.  She quit acting in the 1940’s and eventually became a real estate broker before being discovered by a film historian, and then went to screenings of The General to help promote it into the classic it is considered today.

49. Intolerance (1916)

In a cast of thousands, it’s hard to believe that the main actress in the film, Lillian Gish (forever rocking her cradle) would be the longest-lived, but that seems to be the case of actors I could find online.  Gish was only 23 when the film was made and lived to be almost 100 years old (dying just a few months shy of her centennial in 1993).  She would be Griffith’s greatest muse and receive an Honorary Oscar in 1971 for her contributions to the cinema.

50. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Not only is every major cast member of the film still alive, but some of them (Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom), came back to their roles to star in the final three installments in the series, The Hobbit movies.

Keith Carradine
59. Nashville (1975)

While a few cast members of the film have since passed, a number more are still with us, including Lily Tomlin (74), Geraldine Chaplin (69), Ronee Blakley (68), and Keith Carradine (64), who won an Oscar for his work in the film.

61. Sullivan’s Travels (1942)

From what I can find (hints in the comments if you’ve got them), the last living member of this cast with a speaking role may well have been leading actor Joel McCrea, who died in 1990 at the age of 84.  Veronica Lake was considerably younger than McCrea, of course, but died tragically in 1973 from hepatitis.

63. Cabaret (1972)

Here we have better luck, with the bulk of the cast of the film, including Liza Minnelli (68), Michael York (72), Joel Grey (82), Fritz Wepper (72), and Marisa Berenson (67) all still with us.  Both Minnelli and Grey won Oscars for their work in this film, and oddly enough this movie largely clobbered The Godfather in 1972 with AMPAS, despite the latter taking the Best Picture Oscar.

George Segal in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
67. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

With a cast of only four actors, that puts a lot of pressure on at least one of them to still be with us.  Sadly only one still is.  George Segal turned eighty this past year, and though he is more well-known to modern audiences for his work in Just Shoot Me and The Goldbergs, he was once a regular in cinematic roles.  This film won him his only Oscar nomination.

71. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

One of the few films listed here that were released after the initial AFI list, this film of course has a great number of living actors, including leading man Tom Hanks, as well as supporting players Ed Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, and Lost’s own Jeremy Davies.

72. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

One of those rare films that has grown in huge adoration through the years (it barely broke even when it was first released), Shawshank’s extremely recent release date ensures that most of the cast is still alive, including leading actors Morgan Freeman (77) and Tim Robbins (55).

75. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Though Rod Steiger died over a decade ago (it doesn’t seem that long-time flies), there are still a few cast members alive from this film including Harry Dean Stanton (88…and wouldn’t you just love for Quentin Tarantino to get him an Oscar nomination?), Lee Grant (87), and Mr. Tibbs himself, Sir Sidney Poitier (87).

Jane Alexander in All the President's Men
77. All the President’s Men (1976)

Both Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward (Robert Redford) are still alive, as is Deep Throat himself (Hal Holbrook, who turned 89 this past year).  Though Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his work in this film, has passed, Jane Alexander (who was Oscar-nominated for her work) is also still alive at the age of 74.

81. Spartacus (1960)

Michael Scott’s classic whodunit, the real Spartacus is thankfully still with us at 97, Mr. Kirk Douglas.  A few other sparing cast members are also with us, including 79-year-old Joanna Barnes (as Claudia Marius) and 83-year-old John Gavin (Julius Caesar).  Gavin would also appear in another monumental classic that year in Psycho (he played Marion Crane’s boyfriend Sam) and would later in his career pull a Shirley Temple, serving as Ambassador to Mexico during the Reagan administration.

82. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

First, can I just vouch that if you haven’t seen this incredible movie that you simply must-it’s sensational!  Oddly enough, the longest-living cast members died just a few short months apart and played rivals for one man’s affections in the film.  Janet Gaynor (the Wife) died in September of 1984 at the age of 77, just a few months before Margaret Livingston (the Woman from the City) died at the age of 89.

83. Titanic (1997)

One of the newest films on this list, almost every major actor in the film (save Gloria Stuart) is still alive including Leonardo DiCaprio (39), Kate Winslet (38), Billy Zane (48), Kathy Bates (66), and Mrs. James Cameron herself, Suzy Amis (52).

85. A Night at the Opera (1935)

Long after all of the Marx Brothers were pushing up daisies, one of the most notable television personalities of the 1950’s was still with us.  Kitty Carlisle died at the age of 96 in 2007, over seventy years after she played Rosa Castaldi.

Jack Klugman in 12 Angry Men
87. 12 Angry Men (1957)

With the death of Jack Klugman in 2012 (he played Juror #5, who was a big baseball fan in the film but was a pretty small part all things considered), no speaking cast member of this film is still alive.  Klugman was most noted for his work as Oscar Madison on the television show The Odd Couple, for which he won two Emmy Awards, though I most fondly think of him as a frequent cast member of The Twilight Zone.

89. The Sixth Sense (1999)

You’re right to raise your eyebrow on this film making the Top 100 greatest movies of all time, but I’m not here to judge, just to record and verify.  Obviously most of these cast members are still alive including Bruce Willis (59), Haley Joel Osment (26), Toni Collette (41), Olivia Williams (45), and a young Mischa Barton (28).  Both Osment and Collette earned their only Oscar nominations to date for this film.

90. Swing Time (1936)

Ginger Rogers ended up being the longest-living cast member of Swing Time, outliving Fred by eight years and passing away in 1995 at the age of 83.

91. Sophie’s Choice (1982)

My other eyebrow is raised now, but thankfully most of this film’s talented cast is still with us, including the main trio of Meryl Streep (65), Kevin Kline (66), and Peter MacNicol (60).  You already know this, but Meryl Streep won her second Oscar and first for Best Actress for this film.

Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show
95. The Last Picture Show (1971)

Cast with a host of young actors at the time, this was bound to have a number of living cast members, and though most are well into their 60’s and beyond, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t indeed a lot of them.  Amongst them are Jeff Bridges (64), Cloris Leachman (88), Timothy Bottoms (62), Cybill Shepherd (64-who was a very big deal in the movies in the 1970’s for those who only know her from Family Guy jokes), Ellen Burstyn (81), and Randy Quaid (63).  Bridges, Leachman, and Burstyn all received Oscar nominations for their work and Leachman won the trophy.

96. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Thankfully there’s a big cast here, as a few of these cast members have passed away in the last few years.  Amongst the living cast members are Spike Lee (57), Danny Aiello (81-who won an Oscar nomination for this role that was originally going to go to Robert de Niro), Giancarlo Esposito (56, and who is wonderful in this film), John Turturro (57), Martin Lawrence (49), and Rosie Perez (also 49).  For those of you out there who wonder why Spike Lee is still spoken about in such reverential tones, this is a good place to start finding the answer.

97. Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s masterwork is one of those rare classic films that I’ve never seen (it’s toward the top of my Netflix queue for the curious), and has most of its principle cast members still alive including Harrison Ford (72), Rutger Hauer (70), Edward James Olmos (67), and Sean Young (54-does anyone else always think of Drive Me Crazy when they hear about her?).

99. Toy Story (1995)

I heart this movie so much, and anyone who is aware of the sequels knows this cast is almost entirely intact from Tom Hanks (58) and Tim Allen (61) in the lead roles to key supporting players voiced by Don Rickles (88), Wallace Shawn (70), John Ratzenberger (67), Annie Potts (61), and Laurie Metcalf (59).

And there you have it-the living stars of classic AFI films.  We’ve chronicled all of the AFI 100 films now, as well as Silent Era stars-let me know what else you think I should investigate.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

OVP: Art Direction (2013)

OVP: Best Production Design (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler, American Hustle
Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, and Joanne Woollard, Gravity
Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn, The Great Gatsby
K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena, Her
Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave

My Thoughts: The final of the visual tech categories, it's time to dive into the world of plush bedrooms and gothic houses, that of art direction (I don't care what they rename the category-it will always be art direction to me).

Perhaps the strangest on-paper nomination in this group would be Gravity, and indeed, it puzzled me at first too.  While the other films had opulent sets and, well, buildings, Gravity was at most a series of space stations.  And yet, those space stations are incredibly realistic.  Part of what I personally judge Art Direction on is whether or not the work looks like it could exist within the confines of the film's environment-it's not enough to be opulent, the sets of a film ground the characters-you have to believe that those people actually live and breathe there, that they exist when the camera doesn't roll.  This seems quite true for the sparse but realistic space stations-you have a feeling that everything on those stations is vitally important and used for everyday life.  In the end this may have been simply a nomination for a film that was collecting them like Pokemon, but it was a surprisingly intelligent and clever one.

American Hustle is able to have actual buildings to exhibit its sets, and the hotel rooms are quite spacious and divine-I love the way that they managed to truly capture the vintage looks of these spaces.  That being said, this doesn't have the genius of something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did a few years back when you truly felt people inhabited these spaces.  Here it felt like the sets were mere decoration, and not practical.  Everything is too clean, too perfect-you just don't quite believe that, say, Jennifer Lawrence would keep a bedroom that well-dusted.  If it's not going to be stunningly real, it should at least be outstanding, but it's not that either-it's above average, and that's about it.

The Great Gatsby is hardly what you could call realistic either.  Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald attempted to live in these houses, but it's not quite something that you believe these characters inhabit, but merely that these actors do.  While there are great moments in the art direction-I loved Myrtle's apartment-there isn't anything as exciting or remarkable as Gatsby's pink suit or some of the other costumes, and so I have to mark this one down a bit for Catherine Martin-still not bad, but hardly something that I want to celebrate (and it also doesn't help that the film suffers from all of the excess, so the set design loses points for making it a poorer film).

I genuinely wasn't expecting a nomination for the futuristic sets of Her, but it does seem like the sort of thing that should be recognized by the Academy.  After all, this is genius work.  I love, for example, how they don't abandon current styles completely (fashion doesn't change into a hard, plastic space pod like Star Wars so quickly), but build and morph off them.  See how all of Theodore's rooms are built entirely around his electronic devices and how the more and more things are digitized the less clutter there is in his life.  I could have done without the iKea-inspired furniture wherever they seemed to go (in the future not everyone is going to have a yen for Piet Mondrian tables and meatballs), but all-in-all bravo to the Academy for thinking outside the box and not just going with another period piece.

Speaking of period pieces, let's not forget the one that screams "AMPAS Art Direction nominee," 12 Years a Slave.  While Oscar prefers his mansions be European, he'll settle for the Deep South when British country manor isn't available, and the movie does do wonders with the houses on display.  I loved the way that certain things in the Epps' house, for example, seem a bit worn and constantly used-these are not the O'Haras, but middle class farmers, and their houses must reflect this.  I also loved how you could practically feel the heat sweating from the houses, and the way that the wood would expand with so much moisture.  Like so much of this film, the art direction is filled with character, occasionally ruthlessly (look at the way they used proximity to the main house to underscore the helplessness of Patsey's plight), but always steeped in fact.  This isn't merely more fancy decorating-it's drawing rooms and front porches that add something to the story being told.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Art Directors Guild gives us fifteen nominees to sort through, in three separate categories: contemporary, fantasy, and period, meaning all five of our Oscar nominees made the cut.  The Period nominees included The Great Gatsby (the winner), American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks, and 12 Years a Slave.  Her somehow qualified for Contemporary Film (which allowed it to win), beating out August Osage County, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  In reality Her should have been in Fantasy, and they could have swapped Gravity (which is quite realistic and has few fantasy elements) in its place, but instead they gave it the prize over Elysium, The Hobbit, Oblivion, and Star Trek.  The BAFTA Awards also went with Gatsby, and substituted out Her in favor of their favorite, Behind the Candelabra.  In sixth place one assumes that you would find The Hobbit, considering this is the first time the series didn't score a nomination in this category.  
Films I Would Have Nominated: I'm not blown away by any of these nominees, though I would probably keep my top two and toss the rest in favor of three very diverse films.  The Hobbit may be treading on familiar territory, but the frozen city of Esgaroth is one of the greatest set achievements in the series so far, so I would have certainly nominated it (probably giving it the award).  Saving Mr. Banks definitely most deserved a nomination here, with the wonderful way that it recreated vintage Disney rides and Disneyland itself.  And finally we have The Conjuring, where the house is a key element of what is going on on screen, and is wonderfully lit with different frightening touches.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar loves his excess in this category, and so there was no way that The Great Gatsby wasn't going home with yet another shiny gold man, with 12 Years a Slave just missing yet another trophy.
My Choice: Like Oscar, I'm going to match up my Costume and Art Direction winners, but I'm going with 12 Years a Slave for this trophy once again.  I'd follow it with Gravity, Her, American Hustle, and Gatsby.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Anyone else putting Gatsby in last (the second time this OVP I have put Oscar's choice in the bottom position)?  Anyone else have 12 Years winning this trophy?  Do you think The Hobbit will make a comeback in this category in its final installment?  And what film had the best production design of 2013?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Art Direction Contests: 2009, 201020112012

De-Constructing the Senate Wall

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC): The Most Important Senator of 2014?
Washington is a tough place to build a consensus, but one seems to building there as the Midterm elections fast approach: Republicans seem more and more likely to reclaim the Senate majority in November.  Despite stronger than expected economic numbers and 8 million people signed up for the ACA, the President cannot find a way to rebound his numbers, particularly in the dark red states where most of the battle for the Senate is being waged.

The problem, though, for pundits and analysts is that there’s no specific set of races that are obvious when it comes to which seats will turn.  Mathematically it seems that the momentum is with the Republicans, but the question is what seats are the ones that magically add up to six to get the majority, and perhaps more importantly, how many more seats can the Republicans grab to insulate themselves from 2016, when the map takes a decided turn against their majority?

Almost everyone agrees that South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia are goners for the Democrats.  Montana Sen. John Walsh seems to still be well-received by Washington Democrats and Natalie Tennant has finally gotten some fire into her campaign, but neither have seen any sorts of polls headed in their direction to make us assume these won’t get the Republicans halfway to their goal.

The four Democratic senators running in Romney states are the seats most cited as the next most likely to contribute to the majority for the Republicans, and when it comes to reaching six, there’s a decent chance that they will be the ones that do it, but none of the races have entered slam dunk territory.  A lot depends on what the Democrats can do to draw distinctions with the President.  Even a five-point jump in the President’s national approval could make a world of difference for Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Begich (AK), Mary Landrieu (LA), and Mark Pryor (AR), but they are definitely the four senators that will decided whether or not Harry Reid remains in charge.

If larger momentum stays with the Republicans, they could well all go to the Republicans, but if you look at each individual race the Democrats have reason for optimism.  Arkansas has long been the outlier of these races, but polling has closed so that Rep. Tom Cotton is within the margin of error of Pryor.  Still, Pryor is certainly not Blanche Lincoln, and continues to maintain a better retail politicking style than his Republican opponent (switch their labels and Pryor would be clobbering Cotton).  Mary Landrieu seems to be in tougher shape than Pryor, but the dynamics of her race are very strange because of the runoff that Louisiana has if no candidate reaches 50%-she’s buoyed by the fact that she’s the only candidate with a shot of winning outright in November, and with another minor candidate dropping out (even if it’s a Republican), she is helped.  Mark Begich has arguably the toughest demographics of the bunch (even in good years with good candidates, Alaska rarely goes blue for a federal office).  Begich, though, is running a stellar campaign that even Republicans are worried about.  And finally, there’s Hagan, arguably the least of these candidates, but the one who has slowly emerged as the safest of the bunch.  Polling has shown her gaining on some really poor polls earlier this year and with one candidate to focus on, the Democrats have started to run a more cohesive campaign.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA)
These are generally thought to be the main races, but there are three Democratic races in Obama-won states that the Republicans are salivating over: Iowa, Michigan, and Colorado.  Democrats have reasons to be worried in Iowa in particular.  Their candidate Rep. Bruce Braley, though an outstanding fundraiser, has turned out to be a disappointment on the trail, whereas State Sen. Joni Ernst has done the Republicans proud.  If Braley wins here, it’s entirely due to the blue nature of the state.

The same cannot be said for Colorado and Michigan.  While Sen. Mark Udall is likely enjoying stronger name recognition in the state, the polls have shown him to have a small lead and Hobby Lobby/immigration reform are going to help him more than almost any other Democrat in the country against Rep. Cory Gardner.  Gardner’s past support of personhood and poor record in the House on immigration is going to give Udall some major tools to drive up supporters from women and Latino voters.  This will be key as he cannot win without either. 

Michigan, on the other hand, has also shifted toward the Democrats in recent days.  Terri Lynn Land, a former statewide officer running as a Republican (she was Secretary of State) has run a better campaign than one would expect, but Rep. Gary Peters has reclaimed the lead in the race, and the blue nature of this state (and Peters strong numbers with women) give him an edge and arguably this is the least competitive seat of these three right now.

Republicans like to say things like New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, and Oregon, but none of these races seem to have materialized and the incumbents have the edge.  This could change, especially if the national environment shifts against the President, but these are worth paying attention to, but not worth talking about flipping.

I’d like to point out, though, that these blue states are key for the Republicans as a barometer for success in the future.  The Democrats in these states (with the exception of perhaps Braley) appear to be ahead right now, despite a national environment that should be bringing them down.  This is important, because these states are going to be crucial for a Republican to take the White House in 2016.  While the loss of the Senate would be big for the Republicans, that doesn’t mean that it would make a lot of difference for actual legislation.  It would just mean the buck would stop at Barack Obama’s desk rather than Harry Reid’s.  If the Republicans cannot translate Iowa and Colorado in particular to their side, how likely is it for them to be able to win it 2016 when higher turnout will favor Democrats?  Not very likely.

Finally, it’s always worth pointing out that the Republicans do have seats to defend, even if they’re small in number.  For a while there it seemed like Georgia might be one of those such seats, but Michelle Nunn, despite a strong campaign, is looking less and less likely to be following in her father’s footsteps.  The Republicans avoided the Todd Akins in their race, and appear on-track to elect the better of the two Republicans (Jack Kingston) in the runoff.  This seat is starting to turn into New Hampshire in terms of the Democrats’ ability to pick it up.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY)
Kentucky, though, still is the great question mark of 2014.  Alison Lundergan Grimes is giving Mitch McConnell his best race in decades, and he has not been able to get his numbers to a point where an incumbent would be the favorite (his numbers are poorer than Mark Udall’s, for example).  McConnell is still the favorite to win because of the red nature of his state, the national mood, and the fact that he is a relentless campaigner, but Grimes is hardly milquetoast and continues to be a real threat for a pickup, which would deeply complicate the Republicans’ shot at the majority.

So, finally, it’s time to answer the question of where’s the wall?  It’s not where either the Democrats or the Republicans would like, quite frankly.  With seats to defend in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire two years from now, the Republicans cannot reasonably hope to keep their majority past 2017 if they only win six seats this cycle, but that’s roughly where they look to be headed in November.  Meanwhile, the Democrats cannot be happy that they have Braley in particular still completely in the fray.  I’d argue at this point that the Republicans would pick-up AK, WV, LA, SD, AR, and MT (Begich and Pryor having the best shot at comebacks), and the wall is now a combination of KY/IA/NC.  Republicans would need just one of these seats to win, but which one?  Headed toward Labor Day, these three races are the ones to watch to see who is building a stronger wall.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ranting On...Nancy Pelosi and the 2014 Midterms

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi is not a dumb woman.  During a recent interview with the Washington Post, the former Speaker of the House insisted that the Democrats would not only win seats this November, but have a legitimate shot at taking back the House.  This is a fool's errand, and she knows it.  Even in the most optimistic of hypotheticals, the Democrats have no shot at winning back the House-they would maybe break even in the best of scenarios, and are more than likely going to lose a handful of seats.  We've discussed this a bit recently.

Pelosi can't say this, of course, at least not in July, for a variety of factors.  For one thing, the DCCC and the Democrats have been inexplicably strong this cycle at fundraising.  According to Roll Call, in the 59 most competitive House races, the Democrats have 30% more cash-on-hand on average than the Republicans.  Outspending from people like the Koch Brothers will probably negate that amount some, but this is still a significant achievement considering the Democrats have no chance of winning in November (though, to be fair, specific Democrats could win).  The DCCC has consistently out-performed the NRCC (and quite frankly, almost every other congressional committee) throughout the cycle, and did again in the second quarter, ending it with more than $50 million on-hand, considerably more than the Republicans.

Why this is is hard to say-you do have both the President and Nancy Pelosi stumping hard for the DCCC, and member dues are required earlier in the cycle than for Republicans.  There's also the fact that Democratic donors could be reactionary to what is happening in Washington-they want to get rid of Boehner, and the only way to do that is to contribute to the DCCC and Democratic candidates.

Either way, though, there's no amount of money that can stop a wave if one is building, and we saw in Florida earlier this year that a cash advantage is no match if the Democrats cannot get turnout.  Alex Sink's loss was a devastating blow because it confirmed that the Democrats cannot win the House.

But, let's for a second entertain the notion that Nancy Pelosi is right.  That the House is in fact in play (we've now entered Hogwarts-level fantasy land here, so bear with me).  What would that look like?  What would the Democrats have to do to win back the House this cycle?

First off, they'd absolutely have to get the President's approval ratings going in a different direction.  Part of what the problem for Democrats is right now is that a malaise has set in on President Obama's approval ratings.  The economy is rebounding.  Obamacare numbers are strong.  Majorities of the country approve of access to birth control, gay marriage, and immigration reform (the border crisis is putting a damper on that last one a bit though).  And people think John Boehner's lawsuit is a political stunt.  In theory, you'd be hard-pressed to find more things that should point to a theoretical rebound of the President's numbers, but it just doesn't seem to be the trick.  If the Democrats were to have any chance at winning back the House or making gains there, the President would need to be approaching 50% again, maybe a bit above it.

Let's then assume President Obama's approval ratings have somehow rebounded.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the Democrats are in the clear.  First off, they still have a lot of red territory where his numbers may rebound a bit, but he's never going to be popular or near 50%.  Really, the point of his rebounding numbers would be to stop the bleeding in Obama-held districts and hopefully insulate some of the marginal Democrats in Romney-held districts.  If the Democrats were really going to win the House, they couldn't afford to lose more than two seats (Mike McIntyre's and Jim Matheson's seats would be the only seats that could migrate against them).  Very vulnerable incumbents like Nick Rahall, Ron Barber, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Joe Garcia would all have to stay Democratic and Bill Owens' open seat would have to be a hold.  One of the things that I always raise an eyebrow about when Nancy Pelosi discusses elections is that she frequently says the Democrats picked up the seats they needed, but doesn't point out that Democrats lost incumbents in 2012 which is why they aren't in charge.  She often cites gerrymandering in these situations, but the reality is that half of the election is keeping what you have, and there'll be no blaming gerrymandering this year-all of the incumbents have survived gerrymandering.

So we move into the seats Pelosi would need to win the Speaker's gavel with a deficit of two.  Most people generally agree that CA-31 and NY-11 are going to the Democrats, which gets her back to seventeen.  At that point, Pelosi would have to win all of the tossup seats currently held by Republicans.  I'd wager even at the most generous of use of that term there are six of those (CO-6, IA-3, NY-19, CA-21, NJ-3, and VA-10).  So she now gets to +6 with these districts, still eleven short.

That means that the Democrats would have to start competing in either seats that no one expects them to do supremely well in and are Romney-held seats in a cycle that doesn't favor the opposing party.  Democrats came very close in 2014 in Illinois-13, Michigan-1, New York-23 and Nebraska-2, but those incumbents have yet another term in office in a cycle that seems to bizarrely favor incumbents (there is less "throw the bums out" than usual this year, despite people loathing Congress...this is probably due to low turnout in the primaries).  These are hardly easy pickups and in reality the Democrats would be extremely lucky in November to grab just one or two of them, but I'm going to struggle to get to seventeen without putting all four into the count, so let's add them and we're now at +10.

To get the final seven (and quite frankly, you'd need a couple of extra to insulate Pelosi against possible  conservative defectors within her party-this is true for John Boehner as well, but he'll have the little extra he needs), the Democrats would require some combination of more open seats in Republican territory or taking out the few Republicans in Obama territory with underwhelming Democratic challengers.  The only other blue-territory districts that seem remotely in play are CA-10, MN-2, NJ-2, NV-3, and VA-2, all of which have challengers that have not caught on with the public in the way Democrats had hoped.  Democrats theoretically have a few more challenges, in both open Republican seats (AR-2, MI-8, PA-6, and WV-2) and seats they have historically done well in but couldn't seal the deal in 2012 (FL-2, MI-7, PA-8), but these are all Romney seats.  And even if you add up all of these seats, there are only twelve.  Pelosi would have to take nearly 60% of seats that she is currently projected to lose (the Democrats are underdogs in all of these races) in order to win back the House.  Short of a major Republican scandal that would somehow involve exactly these specific incumbents, that is impossible

So yes, for 2014 any hope the Democrats have is lost.  Their best bet remains to minimize losses (both with incumbents and promising challengers), and to head into 2016 with much more options (Hillary Clinton will bring her own set of coattails, particularly if she's winning).  And the only way to do that for 2016 is to pretend that 2014 is still an option.