Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Finding Dory (2016)

Film: Finding Dory (2016)
Stars: Ellen Degeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O'Neill, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell
Director: Andrew Stanton
Oscar History: Considering the box office, the reviews, and the studio, it seems deeply unlikely that this misses in the Animated Feature category.  A win may be harder to tackle considering Zootopia already has laid claim to such a crown, and Moana is going to storm into the back half of the year.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

When I was growing up, we had things called Direct-to-Video movies, something that seems to kind of be a thing still from what I can tell, but nowhere near the level that it was then in terms of hype.  I distinctly remember, for example, when Return of Jafar came out and having a great amount of fanfare over the prospect of seeing more of the world of Aladdin, only to be severely disappointed that the movie, well, wasn't as good as the first one (I was a very discerning ten-year-old and upon researching this article prior to writing it, I find out critics by-and-large agreed with me).  This started an avalanche of sequels that I wasn't necessarily allowed to watch all of the time (we were not rich, so we only got to buy the films we had actually seen in theaters as a rule), but would catch on the Disney Channel as I got older.  As a whole, these movies were inferior to their previous, theatrical incarnations, the sort of easily dismissed trifles that come along when you have a potential $1 billion franchise on your hand (which seems to be par-for-the-course with the King Midas's of movies, Disney).  However, they didn't really diminish the original pictures as they were easily avoided if you didn't go to that section of your Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately in recent years Pixar hasn't really gotten the memo that their sequels aren't living up to the originals, and that perhaps a direct-to-video situation would be better for all involved.  Likely buoyed by the absolute wonder of the Toy Story films (all of which were sublime), they have instead started popping out sequels that are, well, subpar.  From the critically-lambasted Cars 2 to to the underwhelming Monsters University, the movies of the studio have becoming kind of junk lately, and have vastly tarnished the brand's name in hopes of cashing in on major profits.  This seems to be something that will continue, with at least two Pixar films I point blank refuse to see (Cars 3, because ugh, and Toy Story 4 because apparently it's worth ruining the beautiful bittersweet ending of that third film with an easy cash grab).

(Spoilers Ahead) Which all brings us to Finding Dory, a sequel to a film that didn't need one but based on the ubiquity of Ellen Degeneres and her legion of fans, was inevitable.  Finding Nemo, the original film, is one of my favorite Pixar entries.  It lacks the inventiveness of Toy Story and perhaps the cerebral high-point of WALL-E, but it is complete fun from start to finish and gives Degeneres a truly marvelous, iconic role as Dory, a fish with short-term memory issues.  Absolutely a treat, and one that only the most curmudgeonly of fans could besmirch.

But like I said, the film didn't need a sequel, and the world that it created didn't really need expansion.  After all, we already saw all of these wonderful side characters and it was hard to imagine them finding a more inventive way to add to this universe, so a sequel felt like it was dangerous territory, something that I realized about twenty minutes into the movie when the picture started to continually retread the entire plot-line from the original.  What made the Toy Story films so fantastic was that they felt like they were a part of a larger journey, a journey of a side character named Andy who is growing up while his toys, who are forever stagnant, have to realize that they will be forced to become older or move on as the film progresses.  This is not the case, however, for Dory, as the film instead just decides to go with an origin story, and one that is easily predictable from the onset of the film, and then has another chase-after-someone-captured-by-humans situation.  I mean-come on here-this is everything about Finding Nemo without some of the same excellent side characters we got from the original.

After all, there's no terrific "Sharks Anonymous" or even jumping through the jellies here.  Instead we're treated to a series of side characters that, while rich in their universe-building (Pixar still does that better than anyone, and the actual set direction here is on the better side for a Pixar film) feel more marketed as toys to be sold than actual avenues for the film to progress.  None of the new characters, not even an "Ed from The Lion King"-style sea lion is worth gravitating toward, and most of them are retreads of the original (Gill/Hank stick out, but there's no one that feels wholly unique to Dory despite most of the original side characters getting only cameos this time around).  Even the animation doesn't mirror the beauty and splendor we expect from Pixar-only rare moments like the pollution-filled ocean around Dory's parents' longtime home feels like something spectacular onscreen, as otherwise it's just run-of-the-mill and doesn't pop in the way we've come to be enamored with Pixar.

It also is a major problem putting Dory front-and-center, as her character suffers as a result.  Degeneres' comic timing is still sharp, but here she's not as funny as the same trope of "random flashback/sudden plot advance" is repeated over and over and over again.  The original film had the constant emerging dynamic between Dory and Marlin to rely upon, but here it's less believable that Hank doesn't like Dory or that his urgency isn't as great as a father looking for his son, so the frustrations are less authentic.  Dory the character isn't a well-rounded enough character to be a protagonist, and acts like a one-note side character for too long, eventually wearing out her welcome.

All-in-all, despite occasional laughs and liking some nods to the original film (though the end credits scene would have been cuter if we'd gotten some sort of hint that it was coming earlier in the picture), I was very disappointed in this movie.  If you had a different opinion, please share below in the comments-what did you think about yet another sequel from Pixar?

Ranting On...the First Night of the DNC

I watch the DNC like probably very few people watch the DNC.  For me, it's more than just a convention-it's really one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my decade.  After all, this is my team, and watching my team is something I do with great pride, but also with an enormous amount of worry.  I see politicians that I have long admired and obsessed over take the stage for the first time, being heard by a large audience for the first time, in some cases even heard by me for the first time rather than just being line items in an article I'm writing, and hope that they will espouse beliefs that I can be proud of, but also that the auditorium is receptive.  I whoop, I holler, and hold my breath during every speech, so even on a normal night I will find myself anxious to see everything go well and for everyone to get a strong review from the critics, or at least one that's largely apathetic.

Last night, though, I literally was texting one of my friends proclaiming "I truly hope that they don't boo XX" whenever they got on stage.  The first half of the DNC yesterday (and I was only able to listen to part of it as I do have a day job), was one of the most embarrassing things I've ever encountered in my party.  Booing of major politicians and progressives by a small minority of people overshadowed everything that was happening at the convention.  Now, I do wonder if they'll fix the audio a bit (it shouldn't be possible that three men chanting "we trusted you" should be nearly as loud as the woman behind the microphone in a stadium that large), but seriously-what could they have possibly gained here?  It says something that they, self-proclaimed supporters of Bernie Sanders, acted like petulant toddlers rather than trying to make something constructive happen, and booed important progressive voices.  Forget about Debbie Wasserman Schultz for a second, though even there it's worth noting that she's been a stalwart supporter of a number of liberal causes for decades: Marcia Fudge?  Nancy Pelosi?  Bernie Sanders himself?  These are longtime activists in the progressive movement whose dedication is beyond question-these protesters clearly have become unhinged, and the real conundrum is what caused this?

I've heard and formulated some thoughts.  It seems obvious now that Hillary Clinton's campaign, in a position to railroad Sanders a bit, should have loosened the strings on the longtime Democratic Party brethren who were allowed to serve as his delegates (it was rumored that many of the party operatives who might have backed Sanders as delegates and behaved better since they were longtime supporters of the Party of Truman, didn't want to for fear of retaliation from the Clintons), as a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch of delegates it seems, but in many ways Sanders himself was to blame yesterday.  He spent months dismissing his losing race on things that simply weren't true-things like the DNC overtly sabotaging him, uncounted votes that didn't actually make a difference to the overall total, and of course the superdelegates, which wouldn't have caused him to win anyway.  Campaigning on falsehoods (and Bernie knew they weren't true), has a consequence because people believe them and it's harder to convince them they are wrong when they're already believing a lie.  Sanders would have had an easier time if he had just continued his honesty to why he was losing-she has a stronger backing, she's a longtime party favorite, and we're converting new voters, which is harder than getting voters who have been loyal to the Clintons for decades.  It's still true, but I have a feeling it would have elicited a better response.

But to the Bernie or Bust crowd-it's time to get a grip, because you've lost yours if you believe this stuff.  The vast majority of Sanders' supporters see the writing on the wall and have come to (begrudgingly, but I can respect that-I am no stranger to losing a primary) accept that they must work to defeat Donald Trump by electing Hillary Clinton.  That is really the only way to stop a racist demagogue from taking over the country, as Sen. Sanders pointed out last night.  The fact that they didn't understand how ludicrous they looked last night and how little they understand about the differences between the two parties makes me wonder if they perhaps just truly hated Hillary Clinton more than they believed in Bernie Sanders (I say this about the small minority of those who claim #NeverHillary but also proclaim to be Democrats).  After all, Sanders has gained enormous (some would say too large, and some would be me) concessions from the Clinton campaign, especially regarding college tuition, regulations on the banking industry, stopping TPP, and the minimum wage.  There is no viable candidate in November other than Hillary Clinton who could help deliver on Sanders promises.  Zero, none, nada.  This is the time where you "trust but verify."  Clinton has made the promises, and campaigns generally stay within the parameters of their campaign promises (I know that's something that is scoffed, but look at the facts-Clinton won't actively go against her campaign promises if history is any indication).  Elect her in November, but also verify-continue to keep the pressure on her, as well as Senator Sanders who will still be in Congress, to make sure these things are done because you can say "we voted for you because you promised you'd do X."  Sitting out the election sends a message, but not the one you think it does.  It says that you don't care.  No politician ever hears the message of why you didn't vote, because all they see is a lost cause, someone who doesn't care about any of the issues.  If you vote for them, though, you're now a part of their victory formula and they're going to want to keep you happy.

The rest of the night became much stronger once Sarah Silverman called out the elephant in the room (elephants having no business being at a Democratic Convention), and whether because she's a celebrity and therefore a political outsider or because she was one of their own, the Sanders crowd by-and-large sat down-hopefully the meticulous Hillary Clinton saw the value in that rare and risky off-the-cuff moment.  We all enjoyed rousing, impressive speeches from the likes of Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders (I liked Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, but they weren't quite in the same class), and crowd reactions from everyone from Bill Clinton to John Lewis to Rosie Perez were fun to enjoy. Silverman, Eva Longoria, and Jason Collins proved that we tend to get the better celebrities compared to Trump's list which looks like a Battle of the Network Stars lineup.  All-in-all, a relatively good evening after a rocky start, most of which would have been fixed if the forest had been more discernible from the trees from a small group of progressives with their heads not far away enough from their hearts.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

Film: Ghostbusters (2016)
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth
Director: Paul Feig
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

The day before I went out to see Ghostbusters, I was talking to my friend Jesse and asked him what he was seeing this weekend, and he replied Ghostbusters, and I replied, "yes, I agree-I feel like it's my feminist duty to see it opening weekend" and he concurred.  Thus is the strangeness of this past year that a film that I would have seen anyway (I'll see literally any Feig/McCarthy collaboration going forward after two home runs and a ground-rule double) I felt duty-bound to attend.  Honestly, the ridiculous, sexist hype over Ghostbusters was so grand and over-the-top I genuinely wanted to shove it into the faces of all of the people (wait, let's just say it, men...and probably Scottie Nell Hughes) who had decided that recasting a movie with all women despite the fact that the original didn't need to be all men wasn't the worst idea, and that Ghostbusters isn't really a "classic" that can't be improved upon or re-imagined.  Thankfully, the film is a riot.  Like the original, it's not a fantastic, shoot-for-the-stars sort of film, but it's funny and has some game performers in it that land most of the jokes and make for an extremely watchable picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie follows Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia University who has spent years trying to downplay her past career as a researcher of the paranormal while her childhood best friend Abby Yates (McCarthy) continues to celebrate their work together.  Through a series of comic turns-of-event, they are both fired and are eventually joined by Yates' assistant Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) when they discover a spirit that lives in a haunted house in Manhattan.  Eventually joined by a metro transit worker named Patty Tolan (Jones) and a ridiculously handsome assistant Kevin Beckman (Hemsworth), they form the Ghostbusters, a group that is consistently able but is constantly being overrun by political power-brokers who know that they're doing good but are covering up the paranormal to stop a mass panic from the public.  The film eventually has them battling a man who commits suicide so that he can come back as a spirit in an apocalypse of sorts that involves him possessing Chris Hemsworth (I feel like if I woke up in Chris Hemsworth body the first thing I'd do is update my Tinder profile, but that's just me), and Slimer returning to the world before we finally see a happy ending for all involved.

The film works well when it focuses on the sharp comedic skills of all of the women involved (and a surprisingly funny Hemsworth, who up until now has largely stuck to the dramatic as Thor and the Huntsman).  Wiig and McCarthy both stick largely to the role of straight women, but still have enough sharpness to land a number of sarcastic one-liners, but the physical comedy heavy-lifting falls principally on Jones and McKinnon, both more than capable after several years on SNL and in particular McKinnon stands out as a resident weirdo, someone that (were she a man) would already be pulling in 8-figures and headlining films with that kind of a skill.  Holtzmann is surely the standout character, frequently finding contortions with her face and giving us just enough both consistency and randomness to be real (at least within the Ghostbusters universe) as well as unpredictable.  I loved every second she was onscreen.

Honestly, there really wasn't anything not to enjoy here-the haters got this one wrong.  The movie itself has a very predictable plot, and perhaps a couple of the heavier scenes don't feel as earned (Erin and Abby don't really fight enough to warrant a gigantic life-saving scene where they feel like they're apologizing for their riff), but overall it's a good summer blockbuster.  Nothing too heavy, nothing that you'll feel gluttonous for having enjoyed, but just nice, clean popcorn.  It never hits the brilliant, observational heights of Bridesmaids nor the near-perfect comedic timing and laughs-per-minute of Spy (still my favorite comedy of the decade), but this fourth installment of the Feig/McCarthy series has me only asking one question: when is Round 5?

Those are my thoughts on Ghostbusters, which you've hopefully seen by now (if not, what are you waiting for?)-what are yours?  Were you a fan of the remake, and did you enjoy the cameos?  Are you hoping for a sequel (the box office has been sketchy, so that might be harder to pull of than I'd initially hoped), or is this enough?  And when is Hollywood going to give Kate McKinnon her own headlining role?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ranting On...Debbie Wasserman Schultz's Resignation

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
Okay, time for some real talk: this is not how Hillary Clinton or Debbie Wasserman Schultz or even Bernie Sanders was hoping that the Democratic National Convention was going to kick off in Philadelphia this weekend.  With a combination of the Wikileaks' emails and Wasserman Schultz buckling under the pressure of the scandal and resigning, Donna Brazile taking over temporarily and a pall of "who will take over now that DWS is gone?" all adding a layer of disorganization that the Republicans can constantly counter any mistakes from their convention with, no one was hoping for such a situation.

Part of this, it's worth noting, is probably an unforced error.  People have been calling for Wasserman Schultz to resign for years now, and she has clearly been an ineffective leader, and I am not a fan, as is evidenced here and here.  Her tenure at the DNC has been marked by ineffective messaging, a disastrous 2014 Midterms that cost us the Senate and brought us to historically low numbers in the House, state legislatures, and Governor's mansions, and truly opaque favoritism in the Democratic Primaries not just against Bernie Sanders, but really against any candidate that wasn't Hillary Clinton.  That debate schedule was a joke, and it took way too long for the DNC's Twitter account to start to give equal time to all of the candidates.  She clearly has been on the outs with President Obama, used the position to further her career more than the party's standing, and were it not for the fact that the Republicans nominated a sociopathic narcissist we'd probably have heard her resignation months ago.

That being said, I'm going to slightly defend the DNC and DWS here, if only for a moment, because the DNC should be fair, but I don't necessarily think it should be non-partisan.  For example, very little is said about Tulsi Gabbard, who essentially resigned the same day as she endorsed Bernie Sanders, but she was also a high-ranking official in the DNC who was clearly supporting Sanders before she decided to resign from her leadership position.  To pretend that politicians, particularly elected officials like Wasserman Schultz or Gabbard (both are sitting congresswomen) are not going to be partisan or have opinions is ridiculous-that's what they do for a living.  We barely expect that from Supreme Court justices, so I don't think it's out-of-the-question to assume that DWS was going to have a preference, probably for the woman she's supported most of her career in some capacity.  The question was whether or not she was bending the rules in some way or another to help Clinton in her official capacity, and at least when it came to the debate schedule, it was.  When it came to the fact that people at the DNC clearly had a preference, it wasn't.  So Wasserman Schultz was wrong in her approach this primary, but I'm not buying every attack against her.  I'm still apathetic on whether or not she should make it through her primary, though.  That's a topic perhaps for a different day, but she has been a strong ally of the Jewish and LGBT communities which I vigorously applaud, even if I disagree with some of her stances (particularly on medical marijuana).  I guess I'm of the mind there that I will support whomever the Democrats of Florida decide should be their nominee and will not send support either way on that primary.

DNC Chair Donna Brazile
Still, I do hope that the DNC takes this opportunity, now, to realize that there are clearly some changes that need to be made to the overall voting process, and I'm hoping that Donna Brazile, who is the interim chair (I don't know why they can't make her permanent chair, but names like Steve Israel, Stephanie Schriock, and Julian Castro are all strong ones so I am not heartbroken if she just makes it until Clinton (god-willing) wins, but truly they should have Brazile get a permanent term at some point), is smart enough to realize this.  I've been a fan of Donna Brazile since I realized what a DNC Chair was and have been calling for her to get this job for sixteen years (loved when she got it the last time, oddly enough after Tim Kaine resigned to run for the Senate), so this is an icing moment for me.  For starters, we need a more fair-and-balanced approach to the debate schedule, perhaps giving ten debates and on nights where people will actually watch-what we learned from the Republicans this cycle is that you can gain an enormous amount of power out of having multiple debates, and it's a great way to get your message out to the public.  Again, on this front the Democrats are actually quite lucky Trump ran because otherwise the free publicity that the Republicans gained could have been advantageous considering that they would have had more publicized candidates on the campaign trail.

I also want them to find a way to fix the voting process, and quite frankly make the voting process in more states uniform.  Some of this has to do with state laws, of course, so some of this would require state chairs and the DNC leadership working with Secretaries of State, but I want a more uniformed approach to the elections.  I want to see, for example, a reform in the way that delegates are allotted from a state-there should be a threshold of having to reach 10% of the delegates to win any delegates in a state, but also that there should be no such thing as unpledged delegates from the state-if, say, Bernie Sanders wins 55% of the votes from a state, he should win 55% of the first-round delegates that are allotted to that state.  I don't agree with the Sanders campaign on creating more open primaries (I think if you're going to vote in a Democratic primary, you should, in fact, be a Democrat-that only seems fair that you're willing to get behind the full party since it's technically a private organization, and really the only thing you have to do to be included is call yourself a Democrat) and I definitely think that we should eliminate caucus systems, which are undemocratic, but I also feel that we should make it easier and more open to register/vote.  You should be able to do same-day registration in every single state-that seems like an easy solution, and I think that early-voting or multi-day voting is also a great idea that will encourage more people to be involved in the electoral process.  I also think that we have to re-visit the primary calendar.  I am a firm believer that the process that over-values New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina has caused some of our more extreme reactions in politics in recent years, and eliminates too many candidates before the vast majority of Americans get to vote.  A National Primary Day is the simplest and most democratic solution, but at least rotate the calendar a bit of which states get to go first if that's not possible.

Finally, because this is probably the last time it will really be talked about, I want to discuss the superdelegates, because that process did not get eliminated for 2016 at this point (and likely will not, period), but is in desperate need of reform.  The reality is, and it cannot be said enough-Bernie Sanders did not lose because of superdelegates.  One of the things that has caused me to lose enormous respect for Sanders was him giving into his supporters' conspiracy theories around superdelegates.  Yes, they aren't exactly democratic, but that doesn't mean that he would have won if they hadn't existed.  Clinton won more states, more votes, more pledged delegates, and more support from the Democratic Party than Sanders-that's why he lost.  No one made up their mind based on a random superdelegate in their state and what he or she said.  So blaming the superdelegates for overturning the election isn't real and saying so is a dangerous lie, because it makes people feel disenfranchised who weren't.

That being said, I want some reforms around the superdelegate process.  In any other year, I probably would have said to scrap them, and if you read back on this blog enough you might see me espousing that belief, but after the RNC I realized that the superdelegates probably could serve a purpose if need be, as the Republicans clearly wish that they'd had a superdelegate process in place with Donald Trump.  So here is my proposal: only pledged delegates chosen as a result of actual election results (preferably on a single, nationwide election over a period of ten days), get to vote on the first ballot.  Delegates will be nominated by the campaigns at least one month in advance of the primary voting, so that people are aware of whom they are electing as potential delegates if they so choose to be informed, but also so that they aren't chosen at a later date that the public won't have access toward.  If no person gets a majority on the first ballot, all of the pledged delegates, bound to their states on the first ballot, will become unbound and will be free to vote in the second ballot for whomever they choose.  At this point, however, superdelegates will also get to vote.  Superdelegates would be limited to former and current Democratic presidents, vice presidents, and Speakers of the House, sitting governors and members of Congress, the state party chairs of each state, and the nine DNC officers.  That's it.  That would ensure that all of the superdelegates would either be elected officials currently culpable to the voters in some capacity, officials that are directly elected by their own party and are highly visible in their state or national party, or figures that are distinguished and limited enough that they have earned this position.  All of them would be public figures, so there would be no accusations that someone was undermining the process through back-room deals or that people who were not elected by the people and that the vast majority of the public had never heard of was deciding the election.

Doing this would do two things-one, it would ensure that the will of the party was not deterred-if we had closed primaries, and the people of the party spoke in an overwhelming voice for one candidate, that candidate would get to be the nominee, as that is how democracy works.  However, it would also ensure that a candidate like Donald Trump, who won a plurality of the votes and not a majority (remember-if Republicans didn't have winner-take-all states, Trump likely wouldn't have had a majority of the votes), but was unacceptable as a nominee came forward or if a candidate was caught in a major scandal, the party would have the power to overturn him or her if need be, and would ensure that a group of elected leaders help that process along.  It's not perfect, but after the Trump debacle, I don't want the Democrats to go through a primary without an insurance policy.  This still would have resulted in, admittedly, Hillary Clinton being the nominee (possibly, thanks to the closed primaries and the elimination of the caucus states, with a larger percentage of the votes), but it would have meant that all of the voters were vested in the future of the Democratic Party and its ideals, and it would have meant that Clinton (or whomever) was given the opportunity to be elected fairly by a majority of her party's voters.  That's what we should all want, and something we should hopefully move past, as I want the DNC Chair to get back to the task at hand and not just fixing the primary system as there are bigger fish to fry here-not only winning the White House, but making gains in Congress, governor's mansions, state legislatures, and mayoral elections, as well as espousing the progressive platform that we have passed and should be proud of putting to paper.  Hopefully Donna Brazile takes that to heart, as it's a big task, and hopefully we can all move past this moment because the stakes of this election are too large to get distracted by inner-squabbles.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Film: Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Oscar History: Doubtful, though it's the Coen Brothers so I wouldn't totally discount them in perhaps screenplay, song, or costume
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I never quite know whether or not it's a good thing or a bad thing when I spend an entire movie just thinking about another movie, but for some reason throughout the entirety of Hail, Caesar! I couldn't help but recall select scenes of Roger Altman's excellent The Player while watching the newer film.  Both pictures skewer the idea of celebrity by using actual celebrities onscreen, though in the case of Altman the celebrities are frequently playing themselves while here they are playing versions of classic celebrities.  Still, it's a fun bit of tongue-in-cheek, and while the film lacks the wicked observation of Fargo and the overall brilliance of No Country for Old Men holding any director to the standards of such a high bar is probably unfair.  Hail, Caesar! is a fun movie, one that occasionally even tries to veer into greatness, that is anchored by being more a lovely string of vignettes than an overall cohesive picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) What I mean there is that the film itself is more focused and at its best when it is skewering Old Hollywood and our romance with it.  It's not new to present select old movie stars as being real-we've been seeing that since A Star is Born, but it's not common to see the actual movies themselves come across as rather, well, awful, but that's true here.  The films that onscreen stars like Clooney, ScarJo, Tatum, Fiennes, and Ehrenreich are all making are clearly spoofing on the classic films of people like Charlton Heston, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, George Cukor, and Roy Rogers, respectively, but not the better parts of their filmographies as all of those movies look, well, awful.  The film is supremely capable in its knowledge of old Hollywood, particularly since main character Eddie Mannix (Brolin) was actually based on a real-life "fixer" named Eddie Mannix who would cover-up stories of major Hollywood stars back in the 1940's and 50's.

These moments are great, and comedically fun set-pieces.  I think my favorite was Channing Tatum's Burt Gurney, who sings a tune about wanting dames to come into his bar and how he'll be stuck at sea without any women, but then proceeds to go into a deeply homosexual song-and-dance number that actually ends up turning the bar into a gay bar and has him being thrusted against by two backup dancers.  In a tongue-in-cheek wink to the many gay men who were paraded as straight during the period, Gurney is himself gay in real-life, but also in a twist defecting to the Russians and being aided by a team of screenwriters who are all Communist-sympathizers.  Coming in second to this hilarious comedic subplot for me was Scarlett Johansson, angelic in one of those ridiculously over-the-top water ballets that they always put in Esther Williams movies, playing a fast-talking broad offscreen, and they create an elaborate hoax to cover her pregnancy (in many ways mirroring the scandal involving Loretta Young and Clark Gable)-Johansson, who is so good so often these days as to be taken for granted, is fun in an underwritten part.

It's fun just to name-check all of these old and new movie star names, but the larger question is if the film is actually any good, and it is, but never really rising above that adjective.  Most of the film gains from its homages to old Hollywood, and really only the scenes with Ehrenreich, who clearly stands out as the only non-famous star of that cast list up-top, pop for me, perhaps because he's an unknown and I wasn't expecting him to be so wonderfully eager and charming.  He's a delight as a young, popular cowboy star who is hoping to prove that he has slightly more acting chops than the B-movie pictures that he has become famous for; Ehrenreich is terrific in this role, and I'm hoping gets more exposure after this film.  Otherwise the film probably juggles one too many plots (the entire George Clooney sequence feels largely unnecessary and like a side gag that's just there to prove that this is the quirky Coen Brothers behind the camera), and though it works in terms of watchability, it's nothing more than a passing fancy from two directors who have made films that will stay with you always.  Still, all-in-all it's a lot of fun.

Those are my thoughts on Hail, Caesar!, one of several films I've caught in the last week (we're also getting back in the swing of daily reviews on TMROJ) that we'll be discussing.  For those of you who saw this (and it was a pretty big hit all things considered, so I'm guessing that's quite a few of you)-what were your thoughts?  Did you enjoy the Old Hollywood homages, or were you leaving disappointed that it didn't have the cerebral ticks of something like A Serious Man?  Share your thoughts below!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Introducing Tim Kaine

Hillary Clinton decided not to go flashy or outside-of-the-box, but instead decided to go with the tried-and-true when it came to her first major decision as a presidential candidate: that of who will be the person standing next to her through thick-and-thin throughout a hypothetical four year term in office?  In this decision, she chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a longtime party player who has been through this dance before with a much different outcome (he was Barack Obama's second choice in 2008, as, it's worth noting, Hillary Clinton was the Democratic Party's second choice in 2008, proving second acts can happen in politics).  I didn't have a chance to do this with Mike Pence a week ago, but I did do it eight years ago with Sarah Palin and four years later with Paul Ryan, so I figured it was appropriate for me to talk about what my thoughts are on Tim Kaine being (potentially) one heartbeat away from the most powerful office on earth.

Honestly, I think my reaction was always going to be of support here.  This is not an election where there's not a lot of room for error, and Kaine was by far the most qualified on-paper person vetted for this job, and perhaps the most qualified Democrat in America save Joe Biden or Al Gore when it comes to actually becoming the Vice President.  His electoral resume is pretty much perfect; serving as Mayor of Richmond, Governor of Virginia, and currently as a US Senator, he has never lost a race for public office.  Combine that with a term as chairman of the DNC (which should help from a party-building perspective, since he has held that lens in the past and it's desperately needed after 2010/2014), and the fact that Terry McAuliffe, the state's current governor, is a Democrat (meaning that the seat won't immediately switch hands since McAuliffe can appoint a Democrat to the seat) and you've got a candidate that basically, on paper at least, sounds about as good as you can get.

His views on the issues show a left-of-center progressive who is very much inline with current Vice President Joe Biden.  Based on his voting record, he is definitely someone the vast majority of Democrats should be able to fully get behind.  He has 100% scores from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, as well as has been praised by NOW, Emily's List and voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Act.  His environmental scorecard is about as progressive as one would expect from a senator in the South, but he has a relatively strong score from the League of Conservation of Voters (91%) which is encouraging, as is the fact that he's been an advocate for climate change and voted against the Keystone Pipeline.  He supported the Affordable Care Act, has sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and has an F from the NRA despite being a gun owner himself, which should help that issue as it will give more moderate senators a voice to cling toward as cover.  About the only issue that Democrats might have room to quibble with are his views on trade, though he's been supported by organized labor in the past and admittedly I think that the conversation about trade has gotten relatively out of hand in recent years-you can't completely be against trade, as it's not pragmatic to the larger economy of the country without risking inflation.  Instead, we should be focusing on an economic approach that doesn't leave manufacturing industries in the lurch and better enables workers access to college and higher education to ensure that they are not burdened by a lack of opportunity.  Overall, though, Kaine is about as strong of a candidate as one could expect on a national ticket, and progressive icons such as Barbara Boxer and Al Franken have enthusiastically endorsed him.

Other names on the presidential list, for their many assets, never really measured up to Kaine, who feels in some ways to be made in a factory of ideal running-mates.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren had enraptured liberals, but her Senate seat would have gone to the Republicans were she to lose, and she is far more of an asset to the left in the Senate, ensuring that the administration (whomever they may be) keep her issues on the table than as a vice president who would have to largely acquiesce to the president's agenda.  The same can be said for Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker.  A personal affinity for Booker makes the fact that he won't be on the national ticket a little bit hard to swallow, but fans should know he's relatively young and will have other opportunities.  The same can be said for Julian Castro, whose resume is probably too thin to make it onto the national stage, and will hopefully either gain an important role in the new Clinton administration, or will test the gains made by Latinos in Texas and make a play for a major role in the red state.  Thomas Perez was an intriguing choice, and also could stay on in his position into a Clinton administration, but lacked the electoral experience (perhaps he should run for Governor of Maryland in two years?) necessary for such a brisk and unpredictable campaign.  Sen. Al Franken was a poor countermove to Mike Pence, as his style is too flashy and would have taken away from Clinton's "experience matters" message (between his time in elected office and in particular his work on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, Kaine is deeply ready to be the president if need be).  Rep. Xavier Becerra was an intriguing option, but has a relatively low profile and with the implosion of Debbie Wasserman Schultz this year and the decision by Chris van Hollen to run for the Senate, he has a clear path to eventually being Speaker of the House so perhaps having him in that lineup makes better sense considering the ages of most of the Democrats' House leadership team.  About the only other candidate on the list that fit all of these boxes and was clearly the second choice here was Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who would have made an excellent and similar choice, though he is not as progressive as Kaine, and has an easier arsenal of attack ads (namely the Shirley Sherrod scandal and his views on industrial farming and climate change).  All-in-all, even if part of me wanted Vilsack for the thrill of a Midwesterner on the ticket and my deep love of Cory Booker wanted him to be on the ticket both as someone I have rooted so heartily for and as someone that would have brought about the first African-American Vice President, overall this was the smartest decision for Clinton, and Kaine is clearly more than capable of being president someday should that need to be the case.

I want to address before I go progressives who are screaming bloody murder after this announcement.  While I am not immune to such overreaction (I desperately wanted an Obama/Clinton ticket in 2008, particularly since as a Team Clinton supporter I knew how close we'd been to such a moment in history and because it seemed more-than-likely that a Clinton/Obama ticket would have happened if the reverse had won), I will caution in two ways.  One, Tim Kaine is not a conservative-by only the most recent definition of the word he is a moderate, and as I line-item listed above, he's pretty much as strong of a Democrat as you could muster for the resume that he brought (and the fact that he will help with a swing state, something that should not be discredited).  Claiming he is makes you look foolish, not the other way around.  Two, if you are claiming you won't support Clinton now that she's picked Tim Kaine you're either having a moment of attention-seeking hysteria or you're lying; no one makes their choice for president based on a vice president unless that person is an abject disaster in the form of Sarah Palin-otherwise you just don't care, as most people can't even name the current Vice President of the United States, so don't feign indignation.  Three, flashy vice presidential candidates rarely translate into particularly strong candidates on the stump; Palin is just one example, but people like Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Geraldine Ferraro, and Dan Quayle all were bold and inventive when they were first announced but suffered deeply when it came time to actually run and not just be a surprise.  Candidates such as Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and Joe Biden-these are men that were hardly considered bold initially, but ended up being strong in their duty.  Four, Hillary Clinton should make the choice of someone that she wants to work with and thinks can help her as president.  It's a bad decision for her to pick someone, so vital to her decision-making, that will constantly be second-guessing her publicly or with whom she shares little personal history.  America has a lot of problems right now-let's not add one by having a vice president whom the president doesn't agree with for four years.

And finally, and I cannot stress this enough-Bernie Sanders didn't win the election, and it wasn't because the system was rigged against him.  It was because he didn't get the most votes.  I know it's fun to threaten to not vote for the Democratic Party, and you have every right to do so, but Hillary Clinton won the nomination.  By a lot of votes.  To pretend otherwise and to pretend that Sanders should get to dictate whom she picks is a fool's errand, undemocratic, and historically bad politics.  Barack Obama made the right decision eight years ago by not selecting Hillary Clinton as his running-mate-three competing egos of that nature that high up (yes, you're the third Bill) would have been bad for the country.  Picking based on the second place candidate in a campaign is foolishness-John Kerry would have been a lot better off had he selected Dick Gephardt over John Edwards in 2004 as it would have meant a ticket he was more comfortable with and an experienced voice in an election where experience became a virtue.  Picking based on political expediency is also idiotic (just ask John McCain if he wished he'd gone with Tom Ridge instead of Sarah Palin).  Time and time again, it has been proven that the presidential candidates who pick the VP that they want and not the presidential candidates that are forced upon them tend to do better on the campaign trail, because it's clear to the public that they will follow their own voice and not that of the swaying winds.  Just look at the flack Donald Trump has gotten for clearly going for Mike Pence in the name of political posterity rather than someone he truly wanted like Chris Christie.  Picking Sanders (or someone like Sanders such as Elizabeth Warren) would have been quickly hailed as Clinton buckling to pressure, not that she stood on her own and went with the man she felt best encompassed her vision for America.  Threatening not to vote for Clinton is foolishness, not just because of the danger that Donald Trump poses, but because Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on so many, many, many issues agree.  Saying otherwise makes you look like a novice-they may differ in tenor, but they are more alike than any other candidate in the race save Jill Stein, and anyone who remembers the 2000 election knows the power of believing a lie (that falsehood being that there's no difference between the Democrat and the Republican) and what damage that can do to the country.  Overall, then, I think this is the right choice-Tim Kaine will be a fine vice president, one ready to be president if need be and an advocate for the many pressing issues that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Party have espoused over the past year.  And I'm thrilled to vote for him in November.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Ranting On...the Republican National Convention

Okay, so that was a longer break than I anticipated.  I think sometimes it's important to check out a little bit, and quite frankly, I needed to check out.  My real life has been a massive series of unrest lately and ennui has run rampant.  I will probably take to the blog later in the week to tackle some of these issues through writing, as thoughts are harder for me to come up with in person and frequently I wish that I could just write a 700-word article and hand it to another human being instead of actually having a conversation about something I have trouble explaining with constant follow-up questions.  Anyway, though, I should be back to full capacity again coming into next week, and have every intention of doing another daily series of recaps of the DNC, but in order to try to appear balanced, I will make sure to document the RNC, which just happened (and which, I'll admit ferociously), I didn't follow to the same degree I will the DNC.

First off, I'm realizing that I never did an article about Mike Pence being added to the ticket, so why not start with that?  Pence's decision was, in my opinion, something of a miscalculation by Trump but also could prove relatively savvy.  The reality is that no person was going to be added to Trump's ticket that would affect actual voters; Trump is too polarizing for someone to latch on due to the bottom of the ticket.  Pence being on the ticket in some respects is good for congressional Republicans.  Were he to be elected, they would have a connection at the table, someone in the White House they could go to to discuss issues with Trump.  Democrats seem to like the guy at least personally (certainly not politically), which would also help in terms of negotiations.  In some ways this is similar to Joe Biden-President Obama dislikes glad-handing and the rigmarole of schmoozing Congress, while it's something that Biden clearly relishes and considering his strong relationship with people like Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch, is something he's tailor-made for.  It's not hard to imagine Pence going out and trying to strike a deal with Steny Hoyer or Dick Durbin to whip up votes, and he fulfills the idea of "first-do-no-harm" in a major way, since he's relatively bland.

The problem here is that Donald Trump is not a rational human being.  He is not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.  He's not someone that is going to give a fig about bringing Congress to his side-he is clearly a man who has almost never heard the word no before and isn't going to be afraid to dismiss that word in office.  Therefore, it's become more and more obvious that Trump does not care about Congress, or what their role is in a future Trump administration, so I do question whether Pence was the right choice from a purely political perspective.  In some ways, Pence is a loose cannon compared to the likes of Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie.  Pence, it seems plausible, could at some point abandon Trump politically-while it's hard to see it now, it's difficult to see Pence continuing to back the idea of NATO being something to be so casually dismissed.  Chris Christie, in particular, was someone who has clearly shown absolutely no internal compass that would discourage Trump-he's a yes man for a man that probably needs one, as few other surrogates are willing to say "yes" about Trump.  Even Gingrich has dismissed some of Trump's comments in the past, but Christie hasn't since his endorsement.  Having Christie as the VP candidate (the more important role between now and November) would have helped Trump out even if theoretically a Vice President Pence would be better for him when he gets behind the Resolute Desk.

So I am not impressed with the step that Pence took with his career, even if some people (has Chris Cillizza always been this annoyingly partisan or did I just start noticing in the last year?), are convinced this was the right move and he will emerge unscathed, but it's not the worst decision Trump could have made (you have to assume Reince Priebus was saying a constant prayer that Sarah Palin or Ben Carson wouldn't show up on that stage next to Trump in New York).  But as for the rest of the RNC?  It was a circus act.

Yes, it could have been worse as several pundits have pointed out, but it wasn't business-as-usual, and not having massive violence or the delegate frontrunner go to a second ballot is hardly anyone's idea of a high bar.  There were some bright moments (Ivanka Trump clearly has a future in politics if her father doesn't screw it up for her, but she'd have to run as a Democrat with the platform she was espousing), but most of it was pretty staid, off-point, and ran-the-gamut from boring and tacky (I still can't believe Scott Baio spoke), to scary (does anyone else have the feeling that in twenty years we're going to find out that Rudy Giuliani had early-set dementia-how could the man who was a relatively strong mayor have turned into this ugly, race-baiting man?), to politically risky (Ted Cruz...we'll discuss him later this week) to truly terrifying.  Trump's speech, overlong but spoken largely without interruption or cringe-worthy tangent, was a difficult moment to grasp because of the dog whistle politics that he espoused on a national stage, with thousands of people cheering it on.  It's horrifying to think this man could be president, and even worse that the media set such an impossibly low bar for him that he was able to cross it.

Where do we go from here?  Well, the Democrats get their chance next week, and provided the Bernie supporters don't cause a national headache for the DNC, it should be considerably better (their prime-time speaker lineup is surely a better-known slate than one that lists Antonio Sabato, Jr.) than the RNC, but now is crunch time.  A few weeks after the convention bumps have settled, it's likely we'll know who the true frontrunner is, and whether Hillary Clinton can maintain her lead.  Trump clearly has an audience, so turnout will be crucial, though Clinton has the advantage.  It will also be telling, because both Trump and Clinton are going to have to debate (provided Trump agrees to debate-I'm still not convinced he'll do all three), and it'll be the first time that Trump isn't against someone that is clearly in need of his supporters.  All-in-all, it was a wake-up call that this is really happening (#NeverTrump only has one choice in November, and her name is Hillary Clinton), but it also lined up a cliche long on the books but rarely true: this is the most important election of your lifetime.