Wednesday, November 22, 2017

OVP: The Salesman (2016)

Film: The Salesman (2016)
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajadhosseini
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Foreign Language Film-Iran*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

The Trump administration at this point feels like an eternity, doesn't it?  Somehow we're not even a year into his reign of terror, and as a result certain indignities that would have marred an entire administration in the past have become "oh yeah" types of situations.  But remember, if you will, that in the height of Trump's first attempt at a travel ban back in January, one of the results was that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was not allowed to attend the Academy Awards, where he was nominated for directing one of the Foreign Language Film contenders, The Salesman.  While The Salesman was definitely toward the top of the list of movies that might make a play for the Oscar, up until that moment, I had expected the more lauded Toni Erdmann to grab the trophy.  Afterwards, though, it felt like Hollywood had the perfect chance to send a message to a president they despised by voting for a director he'd literally banned from the country, and so The Salesman ended up winning in one of the night's most political moments.  I've thought for months now about whether or not this win was actually warranted as it was truly the best movie of the five, or whether it was more a win in the way of sending Trump an "F-U" from the Academy.  So I went into this movie with a lot more questions than I normally would a recently released picture whose plot/stars I know very little regarding.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers around an affluent acting couple who are putting on a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  The movie alternates between the play, occasionally feeling like we're actually watching Death of a Salesman (there are scenes that open on the play already in progress, without the veil of them being the characters), and real-life, where they are struggling to find a place to live after their apartment building collapses.  They move into an apartment, which they later learn previously housed a prostitute, and one night the wife Rana (Alidoosti) is assaulted by an unknown man, one whom we are left to assume was a client of the prostitute's.

The film unfolds as a type of psychological drama after this, as Rana becomes increasingly reliant on her husband Emad (Hosseini) for everything in her life, while Emad, who is frustrated at his once independent wife becomes afraid of the world, tries to find the man who assaulted her.  Eventually he finds him, and to the shock of most of the audience he's not a young criminal, but a senior citizen who claims that he simply startled Rana, not actually assaults her.  Things escalate with Emad locking the old man in an abandoned apartment room and trying to out his crimes to his family, and then the old man has a heart attack of sorts and nearly dies.  The film ends with Rana forcing Emad to not make the man confess, threatening him with divorce if he does, but Emad cannot help himself to strike the old man, who then goes into another heart episode as the film closes, with Rana and Emad wordlessly leaving the theater.

The film in a lot of ways recalls Farhadi's magnum opus A Separation, though it so liberally borrows from it that occasionally the shock of that original picture doesn't come across quite as well here.  The frustrations between Emad and Rana, for example, don't come to much of a head and feel underplayed more out of an under-developed script than out of cinematic ambience.  Still, Farhadi is a master of mood, and there are moments that are terribly gripping in the picture, particularly in some of the climactic scenes where you realize that Emad is so far under the spell of his rage and scorned masculinity that you think he's willing to sacrifice his marriage to defend his wife.  The movie needs more of this bizarre pull, and less of the meandering push to shove the parallels between Miller's play and our onscreen drama together.  All-in-all, it's the best movie I've seen nominated that year so far, but I have to believe they might have gone in a different direction without Trump, as Farhadi had made a similar (and better) movie five years previously.

Those are my thoughts on The Salesman-how about you?  I will confess it doesn't age as well in my mind (I saw it a few weeks ago), so for those who have had a lot of time to percolate with the picture, what did you think?  And what film would you have voted for in the 2016 Foreign Film Oscar lineup?  Share below!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

My Experiences with Undercover Homophobia

Coming out of the closet is a strange experience, but one of the things that I remember about this experience is that, by-and-large, most of the interactions I had were far better than I could have imagined.  It was thirteen years ago, of course, so time tends to gloss over the worst moments of the experience, but people were supportive.  Friends I'd had wanted to know about my crushes and dating life, and were proud of me finally coming out of the closet.  But in the process, I remember losing one of my best friends, and as I'm trying to get a bit more personal (in prep for NaNoWriMo, a mention I'm sure you're all sick of hearing at this point, but I feel like if I write it enough times I'll actually do it so this is a bit of self-actualizing), I figured I'd tell that story as it still feels resonant today, as it's something that sneaks up on my own experience.

The first person I came out of the closet to I did in a letter.  It went well (it was the fastest that friend, whom I still adore, ever responded to an email in her life), and I moved on relatively quickly to coming out to people by actually talking to them in person.  One of the first people I did this with was a friend whom I lived in the same dormitory hall with.  We'd been friends for about six months, and were part of the same circle.  I really liked her a lot, and considered her one of the closest people to me, and I knew she'd be supportive as she was one of the more progressive of our friends when it came to her politics.  She was predictably supportive, and excited to learn more about this secret life I'd been living.

We started to, because it was still a popular show on television at the time, refer to ourselves by Will & Grace type names, and went shopping and discussed boys and guys we thought were cute.  It was really exhilarating, something that I had never experienced before.  When you're in the closet you spend so much of your life hiding from the world that, quite frankly, you never really feel open.  It's a crippling sort of internal loneliness, and to be able to burst your full self forward is such a release, such a joy, that that unhindered openness changes who you are in some ways.  Honestly, this seems a weird thing to say, but at this point in my life I'm not nearly as good of a liar as I was when I was a teenager, as lying becomes so hard to do after you were forced to do it for twenty years.  Suffice it to say, I was happy.

I was also, admittedly, not dating any guys at the time.  I had no way to meet men, as this was largely pre-dating app (the only ways to meet men online were extremely seedy, not the highly-catered world we live in now by comparison), and I was still, with the exception of a handful of friends, not out of the closet.  The thought of going up to a man, asking if he was gay, and then seeing if he also wanted to go on a date with me was petrifying, particularly without support. But I knew this was the next step, and one I was desperate to start taking, so I decided to ask two of my friends if they would come with me to a gay bar, so that I'd at least wouldn't have to ask if the guy was gay, and I'd have some support while I was doing it.

One of the friends was raring to go, excited about me going from a "theoretical" gay to an actual one (I literally had never even been kissed at this point), but my other friend, the Will & Grace friend, kept dragging her feet.  She still wanted to go out shopping and talk about the guys she was trying to date, but I could tell that she didn't like the gay part of me going from theoretical to reality.  Finally, I confronted her about it, and she said "I'm not comfortable going to a gay bar."  This confused me, as we went to bars together, and had gone out dancing, and then it occurred to me-she wanted Will Truman, the character on a broadcast network who doted on Grace but largely was only gay in terms of quips and sighs about fashion & George Clooney, not an actual gay man who wanted to date (and more) with other gay men.  She wanted an asexual gay man, one who could mirror her and make her look trendy, not a real true person who was going to date gay men.

Suffice it to say, we didn't go to the gay bar.  I met a gay couple through a random dating website who agreed to be my "sponsors" at the gay club so I wouldn't be scared (a story for a different day), and eventually got less scared about dating men.  In the process, though, I could never look at that friend the same way again, and it scarred me a bit when it came to most of my coming out process later.  I began to judge friends not on the scale of whether they accepted me as a gay person, but whether they accepted gay culture itself.  The ones who stuck took me as someone who had to be himself, and not just be a caricature of a man from TV.  I learned that it was easier to take homophobia that was obvious and base than sneaky like what my friend showed, one who would like to treat me as something to augment her own self than be a genuine friend with whom to spend time.  When people ask me if I had any bad experiences coming out, I usually say no, but this is the one that sticks out in my mind when I hear that phrase, as it was the first time I felt prejudice as an openly gay man, and it was from a place I had felt was a safe place.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Film: Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey, Jr.
Director: Jon Watts
Oscar History: VFX seems pretty weak this year as it's SO sequel heavy and the few films that aren't sequels aren't automatic nominees (see Valerian or Dark Tower), so maybe?  Spider-Man under Sam Raimi did pretty well in this category, winning in 2004.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

There are few movies I really wanted less than another Spider-Man picture.  I'm well-aware that Disney/Marvel/whatever else they own by now (I'm writing this in mid-October for NaNoWriMo, so if we've renamed the country after them, I wouldn't be that surprised), needed a way to fold Peter Parker into the Avengers saga, but my thoughts going into this were that the movie seemed so unnecessary.  After a very fine first two films with Tobey Maguire, a third movie with him that was wholly unnecessary, and then a pair of completely misguided pictures with Andrew Garfield (who is too cerebral of an actor to ever be a proper matinee idol), I just didn't need to see them attempt it again.  Unlike Fantastic Four, they got it right the first time, and I just didn't require them to try for a third helping after doing it well to start with.  I even vowed to skip the next movie on principle, but then the previews looked good and the reviews were solid and Tom Holland is so cute...and, well, I'm weak, so I slipped into a theater and caught yet another attempt at trying to revive the Spider-Man franchise.

(Spoilers Ahead) The good news is that the movie itself is actually worth the ticket price.  Gone are the over-indulgences of the Andrew Garfield years (the villains-blech), and for the most part we don't have to relive the origin story for Spider-Man this time, which is so great.  I don't need to see poor Uncle Ben die yet again, with Aunt May mourning and Peter vowing revenge.  I don't need to live through the Green Goblin story once more.  It's nice to see a new villain (in this case, Michael Keaton as the Vulture) enter the picture and for them to skip over this aspect of the story because we know it by heart (note-Batman, you can do this too going forward).  By freeing itself from previous iterations and the shackles that come with them, you actually get a fresher movie, one that seems more attuned to actual teenage life, and not just telling the stories of a decades-old comic book.

The film lives and dies on whether or not Tom Holland's Peter Parker is likable, and honestly-he's my favorite Spider-Man, actually by quite a long-shot.  While Spider-Man 2 is arguably the best of the series so far, Holland is a better superhero than Tobey Maguire.  He's far more age appropriate for the role (Maguire was 27 when he first became Peter, Garfield was nearly 30), and actually seems attuned to Peter as a person and not just a means-to-an-end into becoming Spider-Man.  He's also got a movie star charisma that I hadn't seen before from him as an actor, and connects well with the material.  Holland is the sort of actor who should have followed Maguire, someone who could bring a different, lighter energy to one of the comic book characters who is generally the "most fun."  Holland stands as the main reason to see this film, and why a sequel is likely in my viewing future.

That being said, the rest of the film is somewhat middling.  The plot is easy to catch, even the shock of Michael Keaton's daughter being Peter's prom date (Keaton continues his strong streak of downtrodden, menacing men as the Vulture, the other main reason to see this picture), and the jokes are pretty predictable.  Robert Downey, Jr., is actually the best he's been as Iron Man in a long time, but the in-jokes of the Avengers start to lose their spark a bit as they continue, and even the "wow" of celebrity cameos (particularly Gwyneth Paltrow returning to her role as Pepper Potts), can't quite sustain the film on their own merits as it progresses.  I didn't care for the entire "WINK" (all caps on purpose there) that Zendaya was doing to being Peter's future love interest as MJ (also, why couldn't MJ have been a guy this time around-when are we going to get a gay superhero?!?), and I would be fine if they dropped Jon Favreau's character entirely from the remainder of the Avengers films as his gruff, charmless routine went out-of-style years ago.  But with Holland & Keaton at the center, it's difficult not to like this film, and honestly it's probably my favorite installment in the Marvel Universe since Guardians of the Galaxy, if not Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Don't pretend you haven't seen the movie, so get your opinion on in the comments.  Who is your favorite Spider-Man?  Where do you hope this franchise goes with the sequel?  And what should Tom Holland's next non-superhero career move be?  Share below!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The State of the Senate

Well, I will admit I didn't expect quite as much movement in the Senate rankings so far out from the actual elections, but perhaps more so I didn't anticipate one of the 2017 races (and yes, there's only one of them), getting to the point where it's now one of the ten most likely Senate races to switch hands for the Senate, but here we are.  Alabama is coming onto our "State of the Senate" roundup for the first time (ever-in all of the years I've done this I've never included the state of Alabama), and with that we've hit an historic first: if the Democrats were to sweep all of the Top 10 here (and of course hold every seat they have off of the list), they would win the majority come 2019.

This is an historic moment that, quite frankly, I didn't think could happen.  It never occurred to me that Roy Moore might (stress on might) actually lose in 2017, thus giving Democrats a chance at the elusive third seat, but in light of the multiple women who have come forward describing Moore's predatory behavior in his thirties toward teenage girls, there's no denying this is a possibility.  Admittedly, the Democrats still have steep odds-they'd have to hold seven of the below ten seats (and it's worth noting that there are competitive races not on this list), as well as pick up two states in addition to Alabama.  But the math isn't "impossible" anymore like I would have claimed it was nearly six months ago.  The Democrats needed a miracle, and Doug Jones winning would qualify as that.  Without further adieu, here's your Top 10 list (most likely to switch parties at #1):

Honorable Mention: I'm still waiting to see if Gov. Phil Bredesen A) will run for the Senate in Tennessee and B) if he can cash in on his once immense popularity in a way that Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold, and Ted Strickland couldn't (but Heidi Heitkamp in 2012, for the record, could).  Still, in light of Alabama it's not without question that Bredesen could be a player if he runs a smart campaign and Marsha Blackburn makes some fouls.  I feel like Bob Casey and Debbie Stabenow have both solidified their standings a bit since our last write-up, but Tammy Baldwin only makes it onto the Honorable Mentions because of Roy Moore-her race still feels the most vulnerable of the three "states Hillary needed."  Finally, the amount of ultra red state legislative districts that have swung hard to the Democrats makes me curious if perhaps Rep. Beto O'Rourke might be in a better position than we'd assume in Texas than a Democrat should be against a Republican (if admittedly unlikable) incumbent.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
10. Montana

I really can't believe how far Montana has fallen in my estimation, but you hardly hear a wink out of this race.  Perhaps I'm underestimating State Auditor Matt Rosendale, but after the Republicans couldn't get the candidates they actually wanted (he was at best third choice, perhaps even 4th or 5th), and Tester's faced far tougher opponents in the past, so I'm thinking that the Democrats may end up having lucked out here.  The NRSC could be cash-strapped, particularly if they can't pass tax reform (many donors have stated they're going to withhold donations if it isn't passed, and I kind of wonder if there's credence to that claim after they also couldn't reform healthcare), and there's a lot fresher or easier targets than Tester on the table.  If Rosendale doesn't make a stronger claim here this might become Florida Senate 2012-a race that was competitive on-paper, but never actually materialized and a theoretically vulnerable incumbent does just fine. (Previous Ranking: 6)

State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R-OH)
9. Ohio

Florida is arguably the hardest race on this list to get a read on, primarily because it's the only race where the competitiveness of the contest hinges on one man getting in (Tennessee, to a lesser degree, but Bredesen doesn't take it from Safe to Tossup, just Safe to Lean).  Ohio, though, is the state where all of the dynamics are out there, but I can't figure out what is most important.  On the one hand you have Sen. Sherrod Brown in an advantageous environment, an incumbent who has won statewide twice (including against his likely 2018 opponent), who will have an enormous amount of cash at his disposal, and is undeniably the better campaigner in this race.  On the other hand, however, is Donald Trump, who proved in 2016 that the Buckeye State may be going harder right than its bellwether state has historically allowed.  If that's the case, it might not matter that Brown is a better campaigner than State Treasurer Josh Mandel-he could fall in the same way that Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Gordon Smith have done before him.  But I'm not counting him out yet, and I think that Brown may be able to take it even if Ohio has turned into Missouri circa 2012. (Previous Ranking: 9)

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND)
8. North Dakota

The North Dakota Senate race remains a bit of a question mark in part because Rep. Kevin Cramer has not yet decided whether he's going to run for the Senate or for reelection.  While Cramer would surely become the frontrunner were he to take a jump into the race against first-term Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, his past comments (about women, in particular) could be a gold mine for Heitkamp in terms of campaign research, and she remains very popular with North Dakota voters.  If he doesn't run, it seems probable that Heitkamp will face State Sen. Tom Campbell, but again-Heitkamp is a very good fit for the seat, and perhaps better than any other Democrat has found a sweet spot between the letter behind her name and the voters in her state (she has video of Trump praising her, after all), and the Peace Garden State has a long history of reelecting Democrats to Congress while they send Republicans to the White House-might Heitkamp simply make it on likability/personal popularity in one of the few states that such attributes continue to hold water? (Previous Ranking: 4)

Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL)
7. Florida

Rick Scott.  Those are the only two words that matter in the Florida Senate race right now-will incumbent Gov. Rick Scott run for the seat?  Were he to run, this would be an instant tossup, probably moving ahead of a few of these seats, quite frankly, as Scott is a famously ruthless campaigner with near unlimited personal cash and has dispatched two very formidable challengers.  Admittedly, Sen. Bill Nelson is an institution in the race as well, but in his mid-70's one wonders if Nelson is running more so just to deter Scott from getting into the race rather than actually wanting to stick around for another term (the Democratic bench in the state is anemic, and there's always the risk Charlie Crist decides to run for yet another failed statewide contest).  But that being said, Scott still hasn't announced yet, and I'm curious to see what the impact of thousands of displaced Puerto Rican voters will do to this contest and to the governor's race.  At this point, Scott not running arguably takes this race off the list, as Nelson has a major head start over whichever member of the House delegation would try and dispatch him (the last two who attempted it failed miserably).  Until Scott enters the race, I'm keeping this right in the middle. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)
6. West Virginia

Sen. Joe Manchin is the last of his kind.  West Virginia was one of the most Democratic states in the country a decade ago, at least statewide, but at this point it's hard to imagine them ever recovering in the Mountain State, and Manchin, conservative as he may be, is likely to be the most progressive senator from West Virginia for the next couple of decades.  The strong prevalence in recent years for straight-ticket voting could surely have an impact on Joe Manchin, and he'll be called a "Hillary Liberal" in this race quite frequently, but part of me wonders if he's such an established brand it won't matter.  It'll be difficult to tar Manchin as a Nancy Pelosi Democrat since his brand-game is strong in West Virginia, and his close friendship with Gov. Jim Justice (and his cosiness with President Trump) could be valuable assets as long as the Senate contest doesn't become too nationalized.  All-in-all, it's hard to imagine Manchin being in a better position at this point, and while that's not high praise, it might well be enough to get him another term.  (Previous Ranking: 5)

State Sen. Kelli Ward (R-AZ)
5. Arizona

Rep. Krysten Sinema suffered a potential blow when Sen. Jeff Flake retired, rather than going off on what was going to be a near-certain loss in either the primary or the general thanks to his immense unpopularity.  She will now face an open seat election, but the Republicans could still shoot themselves in the foot.  I'd argue that if Rep. Martha McSally wins the primary, this race moves toward about 10th place on this list, as she's the better campaigner of the two and fits Arizona's (increasingly) light red tint.  However, State Sen. Kelli Ward is trying to portray McSally as "Jeff Flake: The Sequel," and polls show this could take.  Arizona is a state where the R behind your name matters a lot, so Ward could win even if she runs from the far right (and it's worth noting she's far better on the stump than her infamous John McCain comment would suggest), but I'd say that Sinema becomes the favorite if she makes it through, particularly if Democratic turnout is as strong in 2018 as it was in 2017.  Still, I want to see how well McSally does in the primary before I move this to the Top 3 (which I would have done had Flake still been a candidate).  (Previous Ranking: 7)

US Attorney Doug Jones (D-AL)
4. Alabama

The polls probably make this the #2 race on this list considering how close we are to the actual election, but I can't quite get there, and honestly I'm not sure I'll be there until there's a checkmark next to Doug Jones's name.  While Alabama is not even close to the longest current losing streak for a state with Senate Democrats, it is one of the few states where Roy Moore would still be able to win an election even with the very concrete allegations against him right now (it's quite possible in this highly polarized environment that someone with Moore's beliefs could win a primary in a place like Ohio or Missouri, but even in light red states Jones would be a surefire winner in the face of Moore's scandals).  That being said, the polls have clearly headed in Jones's favor, and Democrats in the state are going to be coming out in droves, while Republican turnout will surely be dampened.  Moore could win (pretty much anyone with an R behind their name could win in Alabama), surely, but Jones has the momentum and could provide the Democrats with an extraordinary moment in a few short weeks.  (Previous Ranking: N/A)

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
3. Indiana

Seats #2 and 3, in my opinion, pose arguably the hardest challenge of the Democratic path to the Senate.  Sometimes these rankings are a bit hard to suss out or feel a tiny bit arbitrary (it's not an exact science).  It feels weird in a cycle this heavily against the Democrats for me to assume that the Top 3 seats should be Republican-held, and objectively I think it's more likely that the Democrats win both Arizona and Alabama than they hold both Indiana and Missouri.  That's because the dynamics in both of these races six years ago were largely dependent on scandals.  In Indiana, that meant that Rep. Joe Donnelly (who basically only ran here because he'd been gerrymandered out of his current district and was throwing a Hail Mary that connected in a grand way), got extraordinarily lucky when Richard Lugar was hammered in the primary and when Richard Mourdock made offensive comments about rape.  Without those two incidents, it's hard to picture him being in Congress today.  He'll have (presumably) a more favorable environment in 2018 compared to 2012, and incumbency, but it's hard to picture he and McCaskill both catching a break again this cycle, and they represent very red states.  If Evan Bayh couldn't win last cycle, can Joe Donnelly? (Previous Ranking: 3)

Attorney General Josh Hawley (R-MO)
2. Missouri

It's worth noting that pundits have historically underestimated Claire McCaskill at their own peril.  Having dispatched a sitting governor, sitting senator, and sitting congressman in her last three elections, only a fool would assume that she's doomed in 2018.  That being said, McCaskill has the toughest race of any incumbent this cycle, and will need more than just environment as a break here.  The Republicans have a very good candidate in Attorney General Josh Hawley, albeit not as good as Ann Wagner would have been, and he's already running hard after McCaskill in hopes of framing her as out-of-touch and too liberal (a path that Donald Trump pulled on a different blonde, female politician last year to much success in the Show-Me State).  McCaskill will probably have more money and the better climate, but she's going to need people to dislike Hawley to make up for her bad negatives with the states swing voters.  She's done it before, but it'll be tough. (Previous Ranking: 2)

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV)
1. Nevada

With 11 months still left in the Senate race, anything can happen, but when you're an incumbent looking at a laundry list of issues with your candidacy and campaign, "anything can happen" is more about self-reassurance than facts, and right now Dean Heller is probably the underdog to win this race.  He's associated with a wildly unpopular president, is a Republican running in what's looking like a very Democratic field, and his opponent is a scandal-free congresswoman who was able to avoid a primary.  Heller is the incumbent, but honestly the death knell for his campaign may be that he is the only Republican senator in a state that Hillary Clinton won last year.  Republicans who fit his profile got CRUSHED in Virginia a few weeks ago, and Heller has not been voting well to insulate himself from attacks associating him with Trump (particularly when it comes to healthcare).  Unless something shocking happens here, it feels like Jacky Rosen will be Nevada's senator-elect a year from now.  (Previous Ranking: 1)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

OVP: Cinematography (2015)

OVP: Best Cinematography (2015)

The Nominees Were...

Edward Lachman, Carol
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
John Seale Mad Max: Fury Road
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Roger Deakins, Sicario

My Thoughts: This is usually my favorite Oscar category that doesn't involve women acting.  Year after year, I am struck by how thoughtful the Cinematography branch is compared to other areas of the Academy that might just favor the Best Picture frontrunners and ignore great work within their actual field (cough, Editing, cough).  The nominees this year once again reach those heights, and though it's not quite as stupendous as the 2007 race we recently profiled (see below for links to past OVP ballots for Cinematography), it's still darn impressive and there's really not a bad nomination in this bunch.

If you've been following along with past contests, you'll know that I love Roger Deakins.  His work as a DP makes him arguably my favorite cinematographer currently working, and he's already won three of these Oscar Viewing Projects.  Sicario is once again one of those movies where he finds so much magic on the screen, particularly in larger wide shots like the one above.  I've heard criticism of Deakins being that he only cares about the shots he really cares about, and while I can see that in some other work, Sicario is not a picture it's easy to cast such criticism toward.  Think of the border control sequence and the way that, even if he's not lovingly framing it because there isn't a desert nearby, he finds ways to improve the tension through eye-level shots of Emily Blunt realizing how over-her-head she is in this pursuit.  It's fine work from a man who consistently cranks out some of the most beautiful movies in the business.

Edward Lachman is another DP that desperately needs an Oscar, as his work in Carol was splendid, and a worthy sequel to the stupendous heights he reached with Far From Heaven.  Carol looks like you're pawing through an old photo box, complete with postcards and hidden moments you didn't remember someone watching.  I love the cool, clean outdoors shots, the way that he always keeps his lovers at the center of the frame-it aids the plot, and it shows the immediacy of this interaction, and its danger.  The movie occasionally borrows from Douglas Sirk a bit too heartily, but even then it's so beautiful you can hardly complain (think of that great shot of Rooney Mara turning around under a street lamp).  The film moves elegantly and is haunting, and Lachman is aided so vividly by the story itself (we don't know when we are leaving these characters for the last time because the central love story remains so uncertain until the final moments) that this is a triumph.  The sort of nomination you can't guarantee because the movie inexplicably didn't do well with Oscar, but man is it worthy.

Another movie whose nomination isn't obvious, but is so jaw-dropping it demanded to be included was Mad Max: Fury Road.  John Seale was pulled out of retirement by George Miller, and proves that "if you rest, you rust," isn't a maxim that has to be true.  The shots in this movie are staggering.  Look at the way that the wall of color shoots across the Namibian Desert, or the powerful moments of green and water that are made more vivid through the heat.  Seale knows a thing or two about shooting desert shots (The English Patient, after all) but here he doesn't rely upon the sex appeal of sloping sand, but instead on the hot, arid heat that juxtaposes against supermodels and gorgons alike.  It's a towering achievement, one that needed to be reached in order for Miller's picture to graduate from action film to timeless.  Job well done.

Emmanuel Lubezki surely had his work cut-out-for-him when it came to The Revenant.  Coming off of well-earned back-to-back Oscars he had to find ways to create a sort of opal glow over Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's violent nature epic.  The scene with Judy the Bear probably earned him this nomination alone, as well as his ability to quickly capture natural light, giving the film's early moments a fleeting characteristic, since they're shot at dusk.  This shows in the picture, as its cinematography is perhaps the only nomination it's impossible to dismiss (I didn't like the movie, but I'm not blind).  I love the way that he shoots the rivers, finding the bitter cold against still running water, and the way he frames shots to make the isolation of America at this point-in-time seem so great.  It's an ambitious work, and proof that Lubezki may be the finest DP currently working.

The final nomination was the one that most Oscar watchers complained about, as Robert Richardson seems to always make the cut for Quentin Tarantino films.  However, it's not because Richardson doesn't find good work here.  Some of the outdoors scenes, where he's showing his characters march through an avalanche of snow, are terrific, particularly accompanied by Ennio Morricone's enigmatic score.  If you click the link above where I review this film, I eviscerate it at as one of the worst movies of 2015, but the cinematography isn't bad, it's just that once it goes indoor it's not that special.  We see all of Tarantino's tropes on full-display, but with a limited space he can't quite impress the way he can in, say, Kill Bill.

Other Precursor Contenders: The American Society of Cinematographers didn't go far from the Oscars here, giving the trophy to The Revenant and only throwing out Richardson's nomination in favor of another Academy favorite Janusz Kaminski (for Bridge of Spies).  The BAFTA Awards actually copied the ASC nominations and winner verbatim, meaning that Kaminski probably was in sixth place here, and considering it actually did better at the Oscars, one wonders why a two-time Oscar winner couldn't stick the landing over a tepid Tarantino installation.  Spielberg fatigue?
Films I Would Have Nominated: Oscar actually got pretty close to what I would have assembled here.  The only nomination I would throw out would be Richardson's, and in its place would be Maryse Alberti's great work in Creed (a nomination that would have made her the first woman cited in this category).  I wavered between she and Dariusz Wolski (another DP in grand need of an Oscar nomination), but I feel like Creed is more impressive and harder to shoot than Wolski's red landscapes in The Martian.  Either way, a truly fine year for Best Cinematography.
Oscar's Choice: I'm guessing this was closer than it appeared as Seale probably was in the realm of a win considering how well Mad Max did elsewhere, but The Revenant made it back-to-back-to-back for Lubezki.
My Choice: I'll work backwards here, with Richardson in fifth, Deakins in fourth, and Lubezki in third.  For the win, I'm genuinely torn between Seale and Lachman, both doing fantastic jobs.  I had initially given this to Seale in my notes, but Carol is almost dreamlike in how well its camerawork matches the mood of the picture.  I'm giving it to Lachman, then, but I'm more than willing to hear arguments in favor of anyone but The Hateful Eight taking this prize.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Are you with me that this is a nailbiter between Mad Max and Carol, or do you think I've lost my mind for not picking The Revenant?  What is Robert Richardson's hold on the Oscars, and how do you think he bested Kaminski?  And when are we finally going to see a woman nominated here?  Share your thoughts below!

Past Best Cinematography Contests: 20072008200920102011201220132014

Friday, November 17, 2017

Why We Need the EPA

I am not, nor have I ever been, a Republican, but I can occasionally see where they're coming from on issues.  The GOP, maybe a bit pre-Trump or pre-Palin admittedly, usually had some sort of grounding in their beliefs.  I can understand, even if I don't share, the belief of being pro-life or in favor of a market-driven economy, and in fact most of their platform (provided it's not taken to an extreme), I can at least understand.  But one of the areas where the Republican Party just throws me off is when it comes to the environment.  This has become more obvious as Scott Pruitt, the reclusive head of the EPA (who seems to have turned the William Jefferson Clinton Building into his own private Howard Hughes freakout center), tears apart the science that actually grounds the EPA and we watch Republicans treat the environment like something to be punished.

Honestly-this is one of the truly great mysteries of my political life, and one that I can't entirely explain.  Republicans didn't always feel this way.  Theodore Roosevelt was one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement, and the EPA was actually created during the Nixon administration.  But since the early 1990's, roughly around the fall of the Soviet Union, the Republican Party has turned its back on the environment, regularly demonizing green activists as nothing more than anti-job hippies.  In the wake of Al Gore's move to the White House and the controversies surrounding the logging industry versus the northern spotted owl, environmental policy shifted from nuanced discussions to simple pro-environment and anti-environment, a startling policy shift for an issue that literally means whether you live or die.

Because, that, quite honestly, is where this issue will go.  I think when Republicans think of the EPA they think of issues like the northern spotted owl, when a "liberal law" cost thousands of people their jobs (never mind the fact that environmentalism generally creates more jobs than it destroys, but facts get in the way of our prejudices), but the reality is much scarier than that.  For starters, the EPA is charged with keeping our water and air safe.  That doesn't happen just automatically-it's the result of scientists spending countless hours ensuring that the water that comes out of your faucet doesn't contain lead or that the lake your child swims in isn't a dumping ground for sewage.  This is a direct result of EPA testing and monitoring, and it doesn't just happen-it's because of the EPA and congressional laws that they enforce.  Take that away, and I hate to break it to you, but you could just as easily be drinking lead without any protections nor ramifications for those providing you the water nor any repercussions other than to vote for people who will bring back your environmental protection.

I am always struck by this article I wrote about last year when I think of things where people support eliminating something that keeps them alive.  The article, about a woman whose husband literally would die without Obamacare but still voted for Donald Trump anyway, shows that we always assume that the side effects of our own politics won't affect us specifically.  We want to believe in only the good of an issue, and assume that we can't be affected by the bad, but here the bad is so much worse than the bad of the other side of the coin, and it will almost certainly come to pass.  Without the EPA, you could very easily die.  So could every person you love.  This sounds like hyperbole but it's just common sense.  The reason we needed the EPA in the first place was to ensure that water was safe to drink and that the air we breathed didn't give us cancer.  Yes, it did in fact protect the spotted owl, a fact we should appreciate (I don't think it's fair for us to support a business that is being largely phased out for a few more years and in the process destroy a thousands-of-years-old species that can literally never return), but it also ensures that you can go to any hotel in America (save, unfortunately, for one in Flint Michigan) and have a reasonable (and legal!) expectation of the water from your faucet being safe to drink.  The EPA is a good organization, full stop.  It is a vital part of our lives.  The fact that Republicans don't see that-that they only see the bad and don't realize the impossibly large good is a terrifying fact, and one that is not exclusive to environmentalism and climate change.  Look at everything from the anti-vaxxers to the birther movement, where common sense and established fact are made way for people to have opinions on things that are not debatable.  Without the EPA, people will die.  Without its protections, people will die.  This is unfortunate, but it's why we have the damned thing in the first place.  Support policies that help those affected by uncomfortable environmental realities, try to fight for more transparency in our environmental legislation, but don't eliminate (or effectively eliminate) the science behind the EPA.  It's literally what's keeping you and your family and every other American alive.  Don't let hubris lead to abject and dangerous stupidity.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Al Franken Needs to Resign

Well, I didn't expect this one either.  Apparently the entire world has decided to rain down hard on my NaNoWriMo month with news I can't ignore, and I will today be talking about Al Franken , amidst a shocking scandal that came from LeeAnn Tweeden, a morning talk show host for TalkRadio in Los Angeles.  Tweeden alleged that Franken, during a USO tour, forcibly kissed her as well as took photos of her while she was sleeping that showed him groping her (or at least reaching to grope her).  The photo, as well as Tweeden's account, seem very legitimate and Franken has publicly apologized, but in light of the many, many recent harassment accounts against a number of well-known public figures, particularly Judge Roy Moore, this could have enormous political fallout depending on how Franken and Democrats handle this situation.  I'm going to outline below five of the more pressing thoughts/responses I have seen based on this, though it is still unfolding at this time.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)
1. From a Moral Perspective, Al Franken Needs to Resign

I don't say this lightly-I've voted for him twice, and he's my US Senator, but unless Franken can provide some other explanation for the photo, I think this disqualifies him as a US Senator.  One could make the argument that there are photos of all of us that we'd prefer didn't exist, but what Franken is doing here is creepy, and coupled with Tweeden's account of him pressuring her into a kiss that she didn't give her consent toward, it feels beneath the dignity of a US Senator.

I want to clarify something, because I've seen it on social media quite a bit here, that Franken (or Moore, or Trump, or Bill Clinton) should be given the benefit of the doubt, that he's "innocent until proven guilty."  That phrase works in court, but shouldn't apply in the court of public opinion, where I feel the burden-of-proof should be (and generally is) considerably lighter.  If there is grounds here for a civil or criminal suit from Tweeden (or if there is an ethics violation from the Senate), that is where "innocent until proven guilty" should be applied, but a US Senator, someone in the public sphere, doesn't get out of the court of public opinion.  He's not a doctor or lawyer or engineer, someone who is bound to his job through a contract with a company-he's a US Senator, who has his job because of the people of Minnesota.  As a result, he should be held to a higher standard than if he's an average person.  And the photo is damning enough here to believe the rest of Tweeden's story, in my opinion-it shows a profound lack of good sense and judgment, and makes me question Franken in general.  This isn't a youthful indiscretion or a crime he committed as a teenager; this isn't a "youthful" by the standards of the media (which is arbitrarily your late 20's, unless you're Donald Trump, Jr., in which case it's apparently 40).  Franken was two years away from being a candidate for the US Senate when this occurred, and was in his mid-50's when this incident occurred.  He knew what he was doing, what the impact of it may be, and while he may regret it, his regret doesn't excuse his behavior.  He should resign from a moral perspective.

2. From a Political Perspective, Al Franken Also Needs to Resign

Have you ever noticed that whenever a Republican sex scandal occurs (and lately, there have been a lot of them), the GOP will throw out "...but Bill Clinton" as if that excuses their behavior.  This is ludicrous, partially because two harms don't make a right, to use the adage, but perhaps more so because Bill Clinton hasn't held political office in sixteen years.  Yes, he is still a prominent member of the party (I would advise that we reconsider having him speak at future DNC's all-things-considered at this point), but he hasn't run for office in over two decades.  You can say his wife did, but I find it a morally bankrupt argument to blame a woman for her husband's misdeeds, and Hillary Clinton has never had a credible attack on her character in terms of adultery, harassment, or a more serious crime like assault.  Bringing up Clinton is the equivalent of saying "but Ronald Reagan" or "but JFK" or "but Warren G. Harding" at this point in my opinion.

Franken, though, is different.  He's a sitting US Senator, someone who stood for reelection just three years ago and is someone who is a current member of the Democratic Caucus in Congress.  Saying "...but Al Franken" has some validity now, because Democrats can't claim the moral high ground on an issue like harassment if they have a man who has been accused of (and photographed doing) what Franken did to Tweeden.  You can make the (not entirely without merit) argument that Roy Moore is worse, considering his actions would constitute multiple felonies and that he has a series of women who have accused him of these acts, rather than (as of now) just one woman in the case of Franken.  But there's nuance and then there's line-crossing, and I think this is a case where a line was crossed with both men, even if Moore went further over that line.  Without some sort of proper explanation (other than bad judgment), it's hard to find a way to not group Franken in with the likes of Trump, Clinton, and Moore now; he was a man in his mid-50's who had non-consensual contact with a woman.  When Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Rush Limbaugh bring this up, they'll bring it up without drawing the obvious line that men they defend are also guilty of similar misdeeds, but they won't be wrong in attacking Franken.

President Bill Clinton (D-AR)
3. The Political Price Here Isn't Worth Saving Franken

I wrote yesterday about Jonathan Chait's New Yorker article, and how Democrats when given the opportunity to prove that they'd act differently in the face of Trump or Moore, would act differently, and I meant it, and I hope that they do (so far near universal calls from senators for an ethics investigation seem to indicate that they're closer than the "if this is true" initial responses about Moore, though I'd honestly like them to go further as I think Franken should resign), but I won't entirely dismiss Chait's perspective that there isn't a political cost to a politician resigning, even if I think that the political cost shouldn't outweigh what is morally sound.

In this case, though, honestly, the political cost isn't that much for the Democrats, even if it's obviously a huge cost for Franken, who until this morning was a major player in the Democratic Party whom many thought could be a contender for the presidential nomination in 2020.  That's because Franken's replacement will be a Democrat (by virtue of Minnesota's governor being a Democrat), and because Minnesota in 2018 will probably be a pretty blue state.  Franken staying on means constant scandal, hanging an albatross around every Democrat who is running in 2018, and a wounded politician who will almost certainly have to retire in 2020, as it's doubtful he'll be able to win a primary again in a state like Minnesota.  There is no loss of seat here, there's no impact on any debate in Washington, and the math for 2018 doesn't get that much harder here as it's unlikely the Republicans are able to score the seat of Gov. Mark Dayton's replacement due to the Gopher State's blue tint.  It shouldn't be the mitigating decision factor, but this isn't the same as if, say, Joe Manchin was accused of this action where he's the only person capable of winning the seat-Franken's much easier to cut loose.  It seems seedy to point this out, but honestly it's not a rock-and-a-hard-place here, it's a rock-and-an-easy-exit.

The Democrats probably should do well to remember that had Bill Clinton resigned in 1998, they would have held the White House with a President Gore.  Gore was morally on a different plane than Clinton, the economy was in good shape, and the Republicans wouldn't have been able to hang Clinton's moral deficiencies around his neck the way they did in 2000 because Gore would have proved himself to be his own man by that point.  Imagine a world where George W. Bush was never president, and remember that not resigning has just as many ramifications as resigning does.  And let's be really honest here-in hindsight, Bill Clinton should have resigned.  His behavior with Monica Lewinsky was beneath the dignity of the White House, less because he had an affair and more because she worked for him which made what he did sexual harassment, not to mention the very serious and consistent allegations that came from Juanita Broaddrick.

4. Keith Ellison Should Not Replace Franken

This is putting the cart before the horse, but if Franken does resign (and, again, I think that he should unless someone can provide a big hole in this story fast, which doesn't seem possible now considering Franken's statement a few moments ago), he should not be replaced by Keith Ellison.  I know that the internet has a love-in for Ellison, but A) he's not the only Democrat in Minnesota B) his politics may be arguably too liberal for a state that went to Hillary Clinton by less than 2-points) and C) I think, considering the allegations against Franken, that a female politician should take the place of the senator.

Identity politics is occasionally a sticky issue, but this feels like an open-and-shut case for them in my opinion.  The state has a number of prominent, very qualified female politicians to take Franken's place.  Off-the-top-of-my-head, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, State Attorney General Lori Swanson, and Rep. Betty McCollum all come to mind (though McCollum's appointment would leave a House seat open in an environment where we may need her vote in the House), and with the former three, they've proven before that they can win statewide, so 2018 wouldn't be an issue.  I think sending a message that we need more women in Washington (because we do, as this and dozens of other issues have shown), would best be aided by actually sending another woman to Washington.

5. We All Need to Take a Harder Look at Ourselves

The Franken allegation is a reminder that all men need to remember to look at their actions not just from what they assume people are comfortable with, but also to remember their position and what may feel "funny" or "not that big of a deal" can in fact be a big deal.  I will admit I am shocked by these allegations in a way I wasn't for Moore, Weinstein, or Spacey before him.  I had admired Franken's work as a public servant, and as I mentioned above, have voted for him twice.  That someone who counts himself as an ally of women could do such things, particularly in a professional setting, is shocking to me, and while you may not have done the things that Franken has been accused of here, it's important to remember to ask yourself, particularly men, how can I be a better ally and are there any actions I have taken that might make someone uncomfortable, and adjust our behaviors.  Everyone taking a look at themselves, and not just casting stones, is how we solve this problem permanently.