Monday, September 28, 2015

Short Take: "Black Mass" (2015)

There are some stories that just seem so unbelievable, they can't possibly be true. The saga of James "Whitey" Bulger is such a story, and it serves as the basis for Black Mass. Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the leader of a criminal organization in the 1970s and 1980s known as the Winter Hill Gang, semi-prominent in Boston. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgarton), a childhood friend of Bulger's younger brother, state senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), enlists Bulger to become an informant, ostensibly to assist the FBI in bringing down the Italian mob. However, Bulger ramps up his operation, leading to a deadly siege of the city for nearly a decade with Connolly protecting him from prosecution the whole way. It's the kind of story that really tests the veracity of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Director Scott Cooper, working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and adapted from the nonfiction book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal, keeps the film focused on the years between Bulger becoming an informant and his eventual flight from Boston once his FBI protection came to an end. As such, the film has a bit of an episodic feel, but keeps things at a low-enough simmer to create a connective tissue of violence both physical and emotional. This is Cooper's best effort to date; though his previous films, Crazy Heart (2009) and Out of the Furnace (2013), proved that he could elicit great performances from his actors, he's never shown much visual flair. Black Mass isn't exactly a beautiful film, but the low-key lighting and washed-out color (courtesy director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi) give the film a period feel, as if we're watching a gangster film from the late 1970s. Similarly, the film employs a framing device around the main narrative: Bulger's accomplices, speaking to an FBI agent during their depositions with the promise of a lesser sentence if they talk. It could have been cheesy or cheap, but it's effectively used, never intruding into the narrative and providing some surprising emotional context (Rory Cochrane, as Bulger's right-hand man Steve Flemmi, absolutely slays in a crucial moment).

And, of course, the main draw here is the actors. Cooper amassed an impressive ensemble for his film - in addition to the previously-mentioned actors, the cast also includes Jesse Plemmons, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, and David Harbour. Granted, not everyone is given significant screen time: Stoll and Bacon hardly make much of an impression in their "stern authoritarian" positions as bureau chiefs, though Johnson and Nicholson at least get one big moment each as the wives of Bulger and Connolly, respectively. Cumberbatch is convincingly Bostonian, and Edgarton is excellent as the cocksure Connolly, giving shades of loyalty to his old neighborhood friends without tipping into cliche.

It's Depp, of course, that the film truly belongs to. He isn't necessarily moving away from the "make-up acting" that's defined his career over the past decade: as Whitey, he disappears behind a sickly pallor, receding hairline, and bulging, bloodshot blue eyes that make him look positively demonic. But what's refreshing is that, for the first time in ages, Depp gives a performance that he's actually invested in, turning Bulger into a violent specter that haunts the streets of Boston with menace. He commands the screen, never once letting us forget what kind of monster he truly is. The film's best scene - the dinner table meeting with Bulger's crew and Connolly's agents - was spoiled in the trailer, but it's a testament to Depp's powerhouse performance. Even when he's offscreen, his presence is felt. It's been a long time since we've seen him be this good. Luckily, Black Mass gave him an opportunity to truly act again. B+

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Short Take: "Fifty Shades of Grey" (2015)

Given E.L. James' novel's reputation as "mommy porn," BDSM erotic fantasy best consumed through the privacy of a Kindle rather than letting others see the tawdry book jacket in your hands, Fifty Shades of Grey is awfully sexless. This isn't to say that there isn't any sex; there most certainly is, but it's presented in such a clinical, passionless way that it could hardly be called titilating. The film presents Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele's (Dakota Johnson) not as an erotic fantasy, but as a contractually-negotiated business arrangement, sex just being another clause in an attempt to establish a power dynamic. So perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that the only thing burning onscreen is the audience's patience.


For those unfamiliar with this story: Anastasia is a college student who is given the opportunity to interview self-made millionaire Christian, who is giving her school's commencement speech, for her school newspaper. They are enchanted with one another, and in their relationship Christian introduces her to the world of BDSM - including the aforementioned contract - which Anastasia is uncertain of.

And really, as far as narrative goes, that's it. A few sex scenes follow, along with some fights and reconciliations, but none of it seems to serve a purpose other than that's how stories work. It's hard to lay much of this blame at the feet of screenwriter Kelly Marcel, since she's mostly doing her best with  staying faithful to E.L. James's novel. James famously began this story as a work of Twilight fan-fiction that became very popular on the Internet, eventually changing names and circumstances into an original story that became a best-selling trilogy. And at times the story that translates onscreen functions like fan-fiction. Supporting characters are basically non-entities included because Anastasia and Christian aren't the only two people living in the Pacific Northwest. It's never explained what Christian's company actually does - other than he gives to charities, because he's a good guy - or what his role in the company is. And the central relationship is woefully underdeveloped, as the audience never has a reason to believe that these two would want to be together beyond that being what the story calls for. Most of the film's problems originate on the page.

That's not to say that there aren't some interesting things at play here. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson creates some pristine compositions, giving the film a visual cleanness that contrasts well with the supposedly-seamy material. And she elicits some valiant performances from her stars, a remarkable feat given the material they're working with. Dornan, in particular, is playing a character who is defined almost solely by the idea of dominance and mystery, and if he doesn't congeal those aspects into someone who is theoretically a believable human being, he at least deserves a special Oscar for uttering the line "I don't make love, I fuck" with a straight face. Johnson, on the other hand, at least is able to imbue Anastasia with personality and agency that the story is constantly trying to deny her. Johnson's performance and Taylor-Johnson's direction combine to create a fascinating friction that tries to reframe the story as Anastasia's repossession of her sexuality. The film's finest scene is the negotiation of her contract with Christian, and the entire scene gives Anastasia the upper hand, exerting her dominance over Chrisitian and shutting down his efforts to reclaim that position. Combined with an ending that literally gives her the last word, there's a feminist undercurrent trying to break through the narrative, but never given enough room to breathe.

That's a shame, too, because those are the best parts of the film. Perhaps if Taylor-Johnson had had more creative control, we might have seen, if not a good version of this tale, then at least a more fascinating and ambitious one. As it is, though, it's an awful film with a few interesting, and ultimately suppressed, ideas. It wants to titilate, but is ultimately flaccid. C-

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The "Obnoxiously-Too-Early" Predictions for the 88th Academy Awards: September 2015

It's that time of the year again! The air is getting crisper, the leaves are changing color, and the superheroes are going into their winter hibernation as the movies for grown-ups begin swimming upstream to their winter home at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards are held. Of course, not all of them will make the perilous journey, being felled by the grizzly critics, shallow commercial-grossing waters, or the rapids of public backlash and controversy. But those who do make it will enjoy the fertile breeding ground of collecting trophies shaped like little gold men and being forever remembered and debated for being better/worse than another movie.

Nature can be a real bitch. So can the awards season.


That brings us to my first Oscar predictions of the season, which I'm making having seen basically none of the films (and neither has anyone else for many of these). So, of course, this is all speculation based on the film's pedigree, similarity to previous nominees, and the push-and-pull of campaigning that every season sees. Chances are this is the last we'll see of several of these contenders in this space, while some of them will march through the next five months to the glory of adding "Academy Award Winner" to their name.

You can find the full predictions here. Below is a quick breakdown of my thought process on each category, so that you have a brief glimpse of the unfathomable insanity that comes with being an Oscar nut. The season really is enough to drive anyone mad and want to give it up for good.

But, as Jeff Goldblum taught us, life, uh, finds a way.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

I'm really hedging my bets on Beasts of No Nation, namely because of the distribution strategy. The film is produced by Netflix, and it will be released to the streaming service on the same day it premieres in theaters. The Academy generally disqualifies such same-day VOD releases, and in the past has barred films from competing because of it. My guess is that they will allow the film to compete, but it still won't reap any major nominations. Eventually this policy is going to change, but the Academy is too conservative to embrace the industry change right now.

BEST PICTURE

Even though, of course, it's way too early to figure this sort of thing out, I'm thinking that we'll see another reduction in nominees this year, from eight to seven. A part of this is simply we don't know enough about most of the contenders, and therefore I'm hedging my bets. But at the same time, there just doesn't seem to be too many strong contenders in the field this year. I would say The Danish Girl, Spotlight, and Steve Jobs are the only true frontrunners at the moment, and the lattermost is still mostly hypothetical at this point.

BEST ACTRESS


It seems like every year now I predict Emily Blunt will be nominated for something, and every year she doesn't get nominated. And this is coming in a category in which Lily Tomlin (Grandma), Cate Blanchett (Truth), and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) all have the most momentum right now, and I'm predicting none of them. I admit completely that I am probably just doing some wishful thinking right now including Blunt and Brie Larson (Room), but Tomlin seems more like a Golden Globe nominee, Blanchett's probably going to draw more attention to her (fraudulent) Supporting Actress campaign for Carol, and after American Hustle went home empty-handed in 2013, I don't think the Academy is really feeling David O. Russell's films anymore, which will keep Lawrence out of the final ballot (she'll just have to accept the millions she's going to make on the final Hunger Games movie and her status as the biggest movie star in the world as consolation).

I am crazy, yes. But if I turn out to be right, well, you heard it here first.

Thoughts on Best Actor and more after the jump.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Emmy Nominations: Limited Series/Movie, Acting

And so we come to the end of our Emmy preview. I had originally planned one more installment, but I decided that my reasoning for that piece could be covered in a different article that I'm working on. So without further ado, the acting nominees for Best Limited Series/Movie.

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Freak Show
Queen Latifah, Bessie
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Honorable Woman
Frances McDormand, Olive Kitteridge
Emma Thompson, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Live from Lincoln Center)

Huffman

Overview: What a fascinating category: every one of these women is an Academy Award nominee, with a total of 18 nominations and 5 wins between them. This will likely be the last time that we see Lange in this category for American Horror Story for a while, since she's sitting out this next season. However, Huffman will be coming back for another round of American Crime, so keep an eye out for her.

Biggest surprise: I don't think Thompson was on too many people's radar for this category, given that it was a concert with the New York Philharmonic that was filmed and broadcast as part of PBS' Live from Lincoln Center series. And yet the idea of Thompson as Mrs. Lovett is exciting, so I'm curious to seek this out (Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel played Todd).

Most notable exclusion: Grace of Monaco managed to be named one of the best television films of the year, and yet Nicole Kidman failed to earn a nomination? Forget whether or not she was any good, her name alone would normally be enough for Emmy voters to make her the frontrunner to win.

Who's likely to win? This one is shaping up to be Latifah versus McDormand, and really either one of them could make a strong case for themselves. I suspect this will be neck-and-neck all the way up until the envelope is opened, but I'm going to give the slight advantage to Latifah.

But watch out for... Gyllenhaal. She's received raves for this performance, and if voters are looking for a swell alternative, they could easily go for her.

Lead Actor and the supporting categories after the jump.

2015 Emmy Nominations: Limited Series/Movie, Behind-the-Scenes

This year, the former miniseries/TV movie categories come with a new twist. Instead of having a combined category as has been the case the past few years, it has been split up, allowing made-for-television films to compete separately from what are now being branded "limited series." Of course, this distinction includes both traditional miniseries and season-long anthology series such as American Horror Story, which are becoming more and more popular (I'll have a more in-depth essay about this up later this month). And it's not a perfect system, either: American Crime submitted as a limited series, since it will tell a different story every season, but Secrets & Lies - which will do the same thing - submitted as a drama series. Similarly, one-and-done series that were built to look like limited series but with the potential to go on and on like Gracepoint and The Slap went to limited series, suggesting that this category could grow to become a crutch for cancelled shows. Isn't awards-show politicking fun?

With that out of the way, on to the nominees.

BEST LIMITED SERIES

American Crime
American Horror Story: Freak Show
The Honorable Woman
Olive Kitteridge
Wolf Hall

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Overview: So here are your nominees for the inaugural Best Limited Series category. Naturally, American Horror Story: Freak Show led all limited series in total nominations with 19, but both Olive Kitteridge (13) and American Crime (10) scored in the double-digits as well. American Crime also brings one of the Alphabet networks - ABC - into the fold, meaning that with the iron grip that cable and streaming is holding on the comedy and drama categories, this could be the outlet those networks need to get noticed by the Academy.

Biggest surprise: There was some concern - silly in retrospect, but it made sense at the time - that Lisa Cholodenko's lovely adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's novel Olive Kitteridge - would fail to make the cut, having been relatively low-key and premiering late last year. Those concerns were unwarranted, obviously, but it seemed possible.

Most notable exclusion: HBO put a lot of effort into promoting The Casual Vacancy, based on J.K. Rowling's non-Harry Potter novel. However, the series perhaps just wasn't well-received enough; most of the reviews were kind but not ecstatic.

Who's likely to win? Believe it or not, Olive Kitteridge seems like the frontrunner now. The support for the series has been growing, and it fits the more traditional idea of what a limited-run series is (I'm not convinced that everyone in the Academy is completely sold on the anthology model just yet).

But watch out for... American Crime. The show turned out to be a major critical success, with many of its champions praising the way it handled the very delicate topic of race. It could sneak in for the win.

BEST TELEVISION MOVIE

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain, Poirot's Last Case
Bessie
Grace of Monaco
Hello Ladies: The Movie
Killing Jesus
Nightingale

Bessie

Overview: What an interesting fate Grace of Monaco has had. It premiered at Cannes as the opening night film last year, with it's eyes firmly set on Oscar attention. Then came the infamous Cannes boos and the savage reviews, as well as very public feuding between director Olivier Dahan and Harvey Weinstein, and suddenly the film found itself missing Oscar season and landing on Lifetime in late May. It's joined by three HBO films (Bessie, Hello Ladies: The Movie, and Nightingale), National Geographic's continued love affair with Bill O'Reilly's "history" books (Killing Jesus), and British network Acorn TV's Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain, Poirot's Last Case.

Biggest surprise: Honestly, I can't find very much about Acorn TV, other than it's a British media company that publishes and manufactures DVD sets of British television, as well as operating a streaming service called Acorn.TV. They somehow managed to get a nomination for their Hercule Poirot film starring David Suchet, the 70th and last in a long line of Poirot films dating back to 1989. It is the film's only nomination. This is very weird indeed.

Most notable exclusion: You mean other than Sharknado 2: The Second One? I'm being a little shit, of course, but given the Academy's love of Ricky Gervais, I'm surprised that Derek Special didn't make the cut (while Stephen Merchant's Hello Ladies: The Movie, the cap to a show they really didn't care about, did; the world just keeps getting stranger).

Who's likely to win? Bessie, without question. The biopic of groundbreaking blues singer Bessie Smith, played by Queen Latifah, has been raved about ever since it premiered in May. It also leads all television movies in total nominations, raking in 12.

But watch out for... Nightingale. The HBO film, which is essentially a one-man show anchored by David Oyelowo, has also been much-talked about and much-loved. It probably doesn't have the same level of acclaim as Bessie, but if anything can top the latter film, it's this one.

BEST DIRECTION FOR A LIMITED SERIES, MOVIE, OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL

American Horror Story: Freak Show, "Monsters Among Us;" directed by Ryan Murphy
Bessie; directed by Dee Rees
The Honourable Woman; directed by Hugo Blick
Houdini; directed by Uli Edel
The Missing; directed by Tom Shankland
Olive Kitteridge; directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Wolf Hall; directed by Peter Kominsky

The Honourable Woman

Overview: At seven nominees, there was obviously a tie somewhere in this mix. Surprisingly, Bessie is the only television movie to pick up a nomination here. All of the other nominees are limited series, and with the exception of Freak Show, every episode was directed by the same person.

Biggest surprise: Given that Houdini received very mixed reviews when it premiered last fall, it's surprising to see Edel nominated here for its direction. This feels especially strange since the German director is not really a known quality here in the United States; his biggest claims to fame here is Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008, and the Jonathan Lipnicki-starring children's film The Little Vampire.

Most notable exclusion: It's interesting that, for all the nominations the show did pick up, the directing category was one place that American Crime missed out. Did the three episodes they submitted cancel each other out, or were voters just genuinely not as impressed by the show's direction?

Who's likely to win? This one is looking more and more likely for Cholodenko. She's done excellent work here; maybe a victory will motivate her to make a new film as well (it's been five years now since The Kids Are Alright).

But watch out for... Rees. She surely has built up a lot of good will from her beautiful 2011 film Pariah, and considering that Bessie seems primed to dominate the awards this year, it's just as likely that she could be the one hearing her name read on Emmy night.

BEST WRITING FOR A LIMITED SERIES, MOVIE, OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL

American Crime, "Episode One;" written by John Ridley
Bessie; story by Horton Foote and Dee Rees, screenplay by Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois
Hello Ladies: The Movie; written by Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg
The Honorable Woman; written by Hugo Blick
Olive Kitteridge; teleplay by Jane Anderson
Wolf Hall; written by Peter Straughn

Olive Kitteridge

Overview: Once again, the limited series dominate this category; Bessie is at least joined by Hello Ladies: The Movie this time around. And yes, your eyes do not deceive you: that is the late playwright Horton Foote receiving a "story by" credit on Bessie. Foote began working on the film during the late 1980s/early 1990s, only to see the financing fall through before production could begin. His first draft was used as the basis for this film's screenplay.

Biggest surprise: Hello Ladies: The Movie managed to perform quite well with the Academy, though I imagine in this category it helped to have the involvement of Stupnitsky and Eisenberg, two former writers for Emmy favorite The Office.

Most notable exclusion: Look, I know that the ratings were as abysmal as the title, and that the show has basically become a punching bag now (if it's even remembered). But The Slap was actually a very lovely program, with some terrific writing to boot. The episodes it submitted - "Harry" and "Rosie" - were very different, and perhaps not the best example of the show's power, but it still would have been nice to see it nab some recognition.

Who's likely to win? This one seems poised for American Crime to take. Ridley won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave in 2013, and the show seems like it was very much a writers' program. It should stand out.

But watch out for... Olive Kitteridge and Anderson. Adapting the novel in a way that both respects the source material and makes it cinematic, Anderson did beautiful work on this miniseries. It could be enough to pull out a victory.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

**There are spoilers in this post if you haven't seen the film. If that pertains to you, do yourself a favor and check at out as soon as possible. It really is one of the year's best.**

As I wrote in my original review of the film, Mad Max: Fury Road is that rarest of summer anomalies: a film that is massively entertaining, wholly original, and genuinely intelligent, layering a deceptively-simple plot with feminist subtext and then slathering the whole thing in gonzo action sequences that couldn't look more different from, say, Furious 7. The film is the fourth addition to a franchise that has been dormant for 30 years, with a change in lead actor (Tom Hardy taking over for the now-Kryponite Mel Gibson), and the franchise's original director - George Miller - who hasn't headlined a new live-action film since 1998 (Babe: Pig in the City; he directed the two Happy Feet films in the interim). 


All of the signs pointed to this being a potential disaster. But if there's one thing Miller can't do, it's make an uninteresting movie - especially when Warner Brothers essentially gave him carte blanche to make the film the way he saw fit. So he made a film that opens with world-establishing narration against a black screen (sorry, you'll have to pay attention to understand; no spelling everything out here), then cuts to our hero, Max Rockatansky (Hardy), with his back to us, looking over the landscape he's surely about to conquer...


...only to have him crashed and captured within a few minutes. It's here that the story actually begins.


That story finds Max in captivity at the Citadel, where warlord Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls his peoples' water supply, maintains an army of deformed soldiers known as war boys, and keeps several women in slavery to serve either as "breeders" or producers of "mother's milk." However, Max's arrival is complicated when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sneaks the breeders out of captivity, kicking off an extended chase through the unforgiving wasteland that will find Max teaming up with Furiosa and attempting to escape war boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), whom Max is attached to as a human blood bag.

It's all terrific, and it wouldn't be hard to go on and on (and on and on and on...) about the film's stunning visuals and ingenuity. After all, Miller famously utilized practical effects as much as possible, meaning that a lot of those cars you see flipping through the sand are actually blowing up and those guys on poles swaying like metronomes from one vehicle to another are actually doing that.  He and cinematographer John Seale (who came out of retirement to do the film) created a world of vibrant oranges and blues, while employing techniques such as changing the frames-per-second rate in certain scenes to give the film a frantic energy. Plus, this is a film in which the chase comes with fan-favorite Doof Warrior, a soldier who's sole purpose is to ride a rig outfitted with massive speakers and shred on a flame-throwing guitar. Name another contemporary action film with something like that in it.


These are all things that are going to come up anyway, but they're not what I want to focus on here. I want to look at the film's complex conceptualization of masculinity. After all, it does ask us, "who killed the world?"

More after the jump.

2015 Emmy Nominations: Drama, Acting

Unlike the series nominations, the acting nominations in the drama categories have a bit more fresh blood in them. As you'll see below, there's a healthy mix of old and new here, including a handful of great performances that were unexpectedly included.

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Taraji P. Henson, Empire ("Pilot")
Claire Danes, Homeland ("From A to B and Back Again")
Robin Wright, House of Cards ("Chapter 32")
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder ("Freakin' Whack-a-Mole")
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men ("Person to Person")
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black ("Certain Agony of the Battlefield")

Henson

Overview: This category got a lot more eclectic this year, with first-time nominees Davis, Henson, and Maslany joining Wright, Moss, and two-time previous winner Danes. The big thing of note here is that for the first time ever, two black actresses will be competing for this prize in the same year. Even better, they're the frontrunners for it (see below).

Biggest surprise: Even though she plays at least six distinct characters in every episode, most of us assumed that Maslany would never be nominated because of her show's sci-fi leanings (that's what had to have prevented Sarah Michelle Gellar from being nominated for Buffy). Maybe Game of Thrones has made the Academy more lenient towards genre shows, or maybe there's just no way to ignore her anymore, but Maslany was probably the most pleasantly-surprising nominee this year in any category.

Most notable exclusion: The reigning champ in this category, Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), somehow missed the cut. It's not the first time this has happened - she missed out in 2013 too - but given her previous-year win, it's rather surprising that she wasn't invited back. Also notable: Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson failed to be recognized here for The Affair, and Kerry Washington couldn't make it three years in a row for her performance on Scandal.

Who's likely to win? As mentioned above, this one is likely going to come down to Davis and Henson (who also competed against one another at the Oscars in 2008 for Best Supporting Actress; they both lost to Penelope Cruz). Both are on uneven, often-ridiculous shows, but they are unquestionably always fantastic on them. I'd give the slight edge to Davis, though; she has career momentum thanks to strong performances in movies like The Help and onstage in Fences, and unlike Henson, she's truly the only reason to watch her show. That's going to only strengthen her showcase.

But watch out for... Henson, Danes, Wright, Moss...actually, there's a good chance at winning for literally everyone in this category. It is by far the most stacked this year. Six-way tie and call it even?

Best Lead Actor, plus the supporting and guest categories, after the break.

2015 Emmy Nominations: Drama, Series and Behind-the-Scenes

As in just about every cultural conversation, drama tends to be considered more respectable than comedy at the Emmys. The Drama Series category is often referred to as the "big one" or the "top prize" of the evening. That's not going to change this year; already, the drama categories have been described as being "more crowded" and that there was no way to nominate every great series on the air right now. This is true, but it's not like the comedy categories were slouches. And as we'll see in this post and the next, the comedy categories were quite a bit more imaginative as well.

BEST DRAMA SERIES

Better Call Saul
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men
Orange is the New Black

House of Cards

Overview: This is almost an exact Xerox of last year's category. In fact, even though there are three nominees that didn't make the cut last year, you could argue that there's really only one-and-a-half. Orange is the New Black was a nominee last year in the Comedy Series category, and Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul is essentially taking the place of its predecessor. Homeland subs in for True Detective (which didn't air its second season until after the eligibility deadline, and even then would have competed in the new Limited Series category), but the show is on its third nomination in this category and won it in 2012. Given the range of dramas that were hailed last year, it's surprising that the Emmys stuck mostly with more of the same.

Biggest surprise: Downton Abbey is perhaps the best example of the Academy's laziness. The show has waned in both quality and viewership over the years, but instead of letting it slip in favor of a buzzier show, it steadfastly held on and presented the show with its improbable fourth consecutive nomination in this category (remember, it started as a miniseries).

Most notable exclusion: There are two: Empire and The Affair. Critically-speaking, Empire wasn't exactly beloved; it earned some raves, but was mostly considered uneven. However, the show was the biggest cultural phenomenon that network television had seen in years, with a very passionate fan base within the television industry, and was therefore considered a strong contender for a nomination. The Affair won plenty of critical praise (though that did admittedly dip in the season's final episodes) and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series. Needless to say both were the most-talked-about new shows of the season. And both ended up missing out here (Empire picked up a total of three nominations; The Affair had a grand total of zero).

Who's likely to win? Game of Thrones is the frontrunner in this race. The show has never been more popular, and a poorly-judged rape scene aside, the show has never been more acclaimed either. Surprisingly, it could very well become only the second HBO program to win this prize (despite the praise and bevy of nominations the network receives every year, only The Sopranos has been victorious here).

But watch out for... Mad Men. On only two occasions has a show won this award for it's final season: The Sopranos in 2007 and Breaking Bad last year. And with four wins in this category already, voters may feel like they've awarded it enough. Even with those marks against it, the final seven episodes of this landmark show received rapturous praise. Don't be surprised if the Academy wants to share a Coke with it one last time.

Direction and writing after the jump.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

2015 Emmy Nominations: Comedy, Acting

This year, for the acting categories, I'm adding the title of the episode that the nominees selected to represent their work on the ballot. As much as I can, I'll try to provide some context for those episodes, but a lot of these I haven't seen. As we'll see later on, the comedy acting nominees are quite a bit more inspired and surprising than the drama acting categories. So let's dive in, shall we?

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Lisa Kudrow, The Comeback ("Valerie is Taken Seriously")
Lily Tomlin, Grace & Frankie ("The Vows")
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer ("Cool With It")
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie ("I Say a Little Prayer")
Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation ("One Last Ride")
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep ("Election Night")

Schumer

Overview: There's a really interesting mix of the old and the new here. Falco, Poehler, and three-time reigning champ Louis-Dreyfus are on their sixth, sixth, and fourth consecutive nominations in this category (Louis-Dreyfus was also nominated four times for The New Adventures of Old Christine, meaning she's been nominated in this category eight times in the past ten years, winning on four of those occasions). Kudrow was nominated for the first iteration of The Comeback back in 2006, so she's sort of old and new here. Schumer's benefitting from a recent rule change allowing actors in sketch shows to be considered leads (previously, all sketch show performances were considered "supporting"), as well as a tidal wave of critical and popular support. And Tomlin currently holds the record for most acting Emmy nominations without a win. Surely she'll be hoping to end that distinction this year.

Biggest surprise: Probably Tomlin being nominated but not Jane Fonda. Both were terrific in Grace & Frankie, and it was assumed ahead of the nominations that either they would both reap a nod or they would cancel each other out. Even then, more people seemed to respond to Fonda's work than Tomlin's.

Most notable exclusion: Fonda not withstanding, there are two very egregious absences here. The first is Gina Rodriguez, who earned raves and a Golden Globe for her performance in Jane the Virgin. Of course, the Academy completely ignored the show, but most prognosticators seemed certain that at least Rodriguez would be recognized (especially after her heartfelt, inspiring speech at the Globes). The other is Ellie Kempler: how do you bestow seven nominations on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt without recognizing Kimmy herself?

Who's likely to win? The obvious answer is Louis-Dreyfus. Yes, she's been dominant in this category for pretty much this entire decade, and eventually someone will usurp her spot at the podium. But given that Veep has never been more popular with the Academy, don't expect this year to be the year we see that change.

But watch out for... The two Amys, Poehler and Schumer. Parks & Recreation wrapped up its final season, and if they want a high-profile category to recognize it in, this may well be the one. It would also be a way for them to recognize her seven seasons of terrific work. Schumer, on the other hand, has white-hot momentum right now, thanks to the popularity of her show and the success of her film Trainwreck. She's certainly been the most high-profile nominee during the voting period, and that could help her pull off an upset.

BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Anthony Anderson, black-ish ("Sex, Lies, and Vasectomies")
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes ("Episode 405")
Don Cheadle, House of Lies ("It's a Box Inside a Box Inside a Box, Dipshit")
Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth ("Alive in Tucson (Pilot)")
Louis C.K., Louie ("Bobby's House")
William H. Macy, Shameless ("A Night to Remem- Wait, What?")
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent ("The Letting Go")

Tambor

Overview: At seven nominees, there was a tie somewhere in the balloting for this category (though as we'll see below, it's not even the largest category this year). Continuing the Academy's fascination with Episodes, LeBlanc is nominated for a fourth time for literally playing himself (albeit an exaggerated version). In fact, Showtime's comedies did really well here this year, with LeBlanc, Cheadle, and Macy all representing shows from the network. Shameless - an hour-long program - managed to successfully petition the Academy to be considered a comedy, and it seems to have worked out for them here. And despite the critical love for black-ish, Anderson is the show's only nomination this year.

Biggest surprise: Take a moment to look over the nominees again. Do you see it? That's right, reigning champ Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) was not nominated. And he was eligible! In fact, this will be the first time since 2006 that the category doesn't have the two men who have dominated it this decade, Parsons and Alec Baldwin (30 Rock). Between the two of them, they combined for six wins over that seven-year period.

(The one time neither won was the year Jon Cryer won for Two & a Half Men, either because the voters got really high when they were doing their ballots or they were giving him a consolation prize for having to put up with Ashton Kutcher after years of having to put up with Charlie Sheen. With his luck, I'm guessing his next sitcom will co-star Mel Gibson, Donald Trump, and that county clerk in Kentucky who won't give out same-sex marriage licenses, and Cryer will win eight consecutive Emmys in this category).

Most notable exclusion: Well, Parsons, obviously. But if we're looking at who else was eligible, it's worth noting that even though Silicon Valley has performed well in terms of nominations over its first two seasons, that love has not been extended to the cast, including protagonist Thomas Middleditch.

Who's likely to win? For once, the category feels a little more like an open race. But only a little bit. Tambor is the odds-on favorite to win, given his well-received performance as a transgender woman finally living her life in the open. He'll likely be tough to beat.

But watch out for... Forte. Yes, there's a fairly strong contingent for C.K., especially since it now seems like we might be without his show for a while. But his character is passive - things happen to him rather than because of him, and that's not the kind of character that voters in this category typically respond to. Forte, on the other hand, is playing both an active character and a kind of abrasive character, and that could be just the right mix for him to sneak out a win here. Plus, it's high time Forte found a post-Saturday Night Live project worthy of his talents.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory ("The Prom Equivalency")
Nicey Nash, Getting On ("7th Annual Christmas Card Competition")
Julie Bowen, Modern Family ("Valentine's Day 4: Twisted Sister")
Allison Janney, Mom ("Dropped Soap and A Big Guy on a Throne")
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live ("Host: Taraji P. Henson")
Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent ("Rollin'")
Jane Krakowski, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ("Kimmy Gets a Job!")
Anna Chlumsky, Veep ("Convention")

Chlumsky

Overview: Eight, count 'em, eight nominees in this category. That's insane. That's either a series of ties or a bunch of these actors tied for the same spot. And they included Nicey Nash from the very-little-watched but critically-adored Getting On! This is probably the most mind-boggling major category in this year's set, but it's also one of the most exciting, since there's no real clear-cut favorite in the mix. Reigning champ Janney will have quite a challenge defending her title.

Biggest surprise: Definitely Nash's inclusion. As noted, Getting On pulled atrocious viewership numbers, even by HBO's standards. Yet the network granted the hospital show a second season, only to be told that the next six-episode season would be its last. Based on the buzz, Nash's performance was well-received, but it wasn't the one that most critics and viewers were ecstatic about: that would be Mel Rodriguez. I don't think a single soul, including Nash herself, was expecting this.

Most notable exclusion: Somehow, even in that quagmire of nominees, Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) was left off again, further suggesting that the Academy may not care as much about that show anymore (it will probably still win Best Comedy Series just because I typed that).

Who's likely to win? The race so far seems to be shaping up to be Janney vs. Chlumsky, and both actors selected strong episodes for their submissions. Given that Janney is a longtime Emmy favorite and Veep looks poised for a strong showing this year, it will be close, but give the edge to Janney.

But watch out for... Krakowski. She's a bit more of a long-shot than some of her fellow nominees, but she also has a slew of previous nominations for 30 Rock. Sometimes the Academy likes to right perceived wrongs from earlier shows, and they might want to rectify the fact that Krakowski never won for her sterling performance as Jenna on 30 Rock. Again, it's not particularly likely, but if it does happen, you heard it here first!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine ("The Mole")
Adam Driver, Girls ("Close-Up")
Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele ("Sex Detective")
Ty Burrell, Modern Family ("Crying Out Loud")
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ("Kimmy Goes to School!")
Tony Hale, Veep ("East Wing")

Key

Overview: Another sign of Modern Family hysteria coming to a close: for the first time in the show's run, only one actor from the show has been nominated here (defending champ Burrell). Other than that, there are some returning players here in Braugher (apparently the only element of the excellent Brooklyn Nine-Nine that the Academy likes), Driver, and Hale. The newcomers are exciting, though: Key and Burgess have both been essential, hilarious parts of their respective shows, and it's great to see Key & Peele being recognized in a major category.

Biggest surprise: There was a fair bit of concern before the nominations were announced that Burgess wouldn't make the final cut. But here he is, deservedly being recognized for his terrific work in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Most notable exclusion: The highest-profile snub is probably Laurence Fishburne, who received raves for his work on black-ish. But there's also the Modern Family crew (Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O'Neill), Key's other half in Key & Peele (Jordan Peele), and the men of Grace & Frankie (Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen). And after seven years on the air, no nominations for Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation), Mr. Ron Swanson himself? Shameful.

Who's likely to win? Hale won this category two years ago, and he seems like the frontrunner to add a second win to his resume. However, he didn't quite have the kind of comedic setpieces this time around that he has in years past, so there's a chance someone could slip by him.

But watch out for... And that someone could very well be Burgess. He's got a role that they love - chaotic sidekick - and his performance truly is hilarious. In fact, he may even be closer to the frontrunner position than Hale at this point.

BEST GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Christine Baranski, The Big Bang Theory ("The Maternal Combustion")
Gaby Hoffmann, Girls ("Home Birth")
Pamela Adlon, Louie ("Bobby's House")
Elizabeth Banks, Modern Family ("Fight or Flight")
Joan Cusack, Shameless ("Milk of the Gods")
Tina Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ("Kimmy Goes to Court!")

Adlon

Overview: The greatest irony of this year's nominations lies in this category. In the past, Cusack has been one of the most flagrant beneficiaries of category fraud, repeatedly being nominated in this category despite appearing in almost every episode of Shameless. So this year, after the latest season wrapped, the Emmys announced a six-episode cap on being considered a "guest" role, and...Cusack was still nominated, since her screen time was greatly reduced. Other than that, Baranski is another recurring nominee here, Hoffmann and Adlon (and surprisingly Banks) earned their first nominations for their recurring performances, and Fey was unquestionably going to be nominated regardless, because she's Tina Fey, dammit.

Biggest surprise: Both Hoffmann and Adlon have been doing great, low-key work as recurring characters on their respective shows, usually only showing up for an episode or two but making a lasting impression. It's good that the Academy finally took notice of them (especially considering Hoffmann was also nominated in Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, albeit for Transparent).

Most notable exclusion: Typically, nominations in the Guest Acting categories are driven by name recognition more than anything else, especially when those names are showbiz legends (see the next category for more). So even though the Academy obviously wanted nothing to do with Jane the Virgin, it's still surprising that Rita Moreno's guest spot was ignored here.

Who's likely to win? Fey is your best bet. Instantly recognizable and genuinely funny, she seems like she's got this one locked up.

But watch out for... Baranski could pull it off, given that she's frequently nominated for this role and tends to be the focal point of her episodes. But if they're really over The Big Bang Theory, it might not happen for her.

BEST GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Mel Brooks, The Comedians ("Celebrity Guest")
Paul Giamatti, Inside Amy Schumer ("12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer")
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live ("Host: Bill Hader")
Louis C.K., Saturday Night Live ("Host: Louis C.K.")
Bradley Whitford, Transparent ("Best New Girl")
Jon Hamm, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ("Kimmy Makes Waffles!")

Hamm

Overview: What's particularly great about this category is that you have three guys - Brooks, Hader, and C.K. - who are wildly successful comedians and are best known for exactly that. The other three - Giamatti, Whitford, and Hamm - are perhaps better known as dramatic actors, but have proven that they have the jobs to really deliver comedic performances. It's an interesting contrast.

Biggest surprise: I don't think too many people were expecting Brooks to be the one carrying the torch for FX's Billy Crystal and Josh Gad-starring showbiz satire, and yet he made the cut anyway. There are worse things that could happen for the show (and they did: it was recently cancelled after a single season).

Most notable exclusion: The same episode of Inside Amy Schumer that Giamatti submitted, "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer," had a terrific ensemble including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Dennis Quaid, Vincent Kartheiser, Nick DiPaolo, and Kumail Nanjiani. Hawkes and DiPaolo also submitted to this category, so I'm surprised neither of them showed up either.

Who's likely to win? Having embodied one of the most iconic, celebrated, and fascinating characters in television drama on Mad Men, Jon Hamm is probably going to win the first Emmy of his career for playing a deranged cult leader on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This isn't a slight on Hamm or the show, just an example of why no one should ever take awards shows seriously.

But watch out for... Whitford. As the woman who helps Jeffrey Tambor's Maura realize her transition, it's a wonderfully nuanced role. That doesn't always win in the comedy categories, but he could pull off an upset here.

2015 Emmy Nominations: Comedy, Series and Behind-the-Scenes

You didn't actually think I wouldn't get around to talking about the Emmy nominations, did you? Granted, they are almost two months old now, and the ceremony is only a little over two weeks away on September 20. But that means it's the perfect time to go over them, now that the hot-takes have been spat out and the actual impact (or imaginary, given it's an awards show, but whatever) of the nominations can be analyzed. That's exactly what we're going to do here. Instead of one massive post like I've done in the past, we're going to break these down into a series of posts, giving everything a little more room to breathe and just making it easier on me to get this stuff done. We'll be looking at who got snubbed, who surprisingly made the cut, the favorites to win, and more. And today, we'll get it off with the categories for Best Comedy Series, Best Directing of a Comedy Series, and Best Writing of a Comedy Series.

On a related note, September's going to be a sort-of informal television month here at the blog. In addition to the Emmys, I'm also working on reviews of the most recent seasons of Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Louie, Marvel's Daredevil, Hannibal, Orange is the New Black, Girls, Veep, and possibly a few more. There will be some non-television-related material as well, including the first edition of way-too-early Oscar predictions in toward the end of the month, but television will likely dominate the output for the next few weeks.


BEST COMEDY SERIES

Louie
Modern Family
Parks & Recreation
Silicon Valley
Transparent
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Veep

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Overview: With the addition of a seventh nominee to this category and a redefinition of "comedy", the race was a little more wide-open than years past. Parks & Recreation enjoys a second nomination in this category for its stellar final season, and Netflix breakout Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes the cut as well (the involvement of creator Tina Fey certainly helped in that regard). And Amazon Studios earned its first major nomination with Transparent, which, despite fitting the new half-hour requirement for the category, has still ruffled some feathers for not being "funny enough." Out of the holdovers, Modern Family is the only one over five seasons old, proving that it's still a force to be reckoned with in this category (though its iron-grip may be fading). Speaking of which...

Biggest surprise: For the first time in four years, The Big Bang Theory is missing from the lineup. This is significant because not only does it hint that the show's position in the Television Academy's favor is waning (more on that later), but it's only the second time in the category's history in which no multi-camera ("traditional") sitcoms have been nominated. It could be read as definitive proof that current tastes have no room for the multi-cam format, but at the very least it highlights just how dominant the single-camera format has become.

Most notable exclusion: Aside from the aforementioned The Big Bang Theory, the biggest high-profile snub is probably The Last Man on Earth. The show is only in its first season, yet it sported a high-concept premise - Will Forte's Phil Miller believes he's the only person left alive after some cataclysmic event has wiped out the Earth's population - that seemed better suited for an action-oriented show or nihilistic drama than comedy. The show performed very well with critics and audiences, and even won over Emmy voters, as it has earned four nominations. It probably finished just outside the final seven. Also of note: Jane the Virgin, which was cleared to compete in this category despite being an hour long and was perhaps the most critically-beloved new show of the season.

Who's likely to win? It looks like the consensus is gravitating towards Veep, which wrapped a stellar fourth season with Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer navigating the even-more-thankless role of President of the United States. And, in all honesty, it will likely come down to it and Modern Family, which is looking for an unprecedented sixth win in this category.

But watch out for... Transparent and Parks & Recreation. In the case of the former, it's one of the best-reviewed shows of the year, and given the visibility of transgender identity thanks to Caitlyn Jenner, it would be a very timely selection as well. As for the latter, it's not typical of the Emmys to hand out series prizes for final seasons, but if they wanted to recognize the series' seven years of excellence, it's now or never.

Best Direction of a Comedy Series and Best Writing of a Comedy Series after the jump.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Building a Better Cinephile: Ten Films That Shaped My Love of Film

Today was a very special day for me. In case you missed the original announcement (I admittedly buried it in my "Sight & Sound Sunday" wrap-up), today was the day I begin graduate school, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film and Television Studies at Boston University. After spending the past seven years (seven! years!) writing about movies and television on this blog, it's time I finally backed it up with some actual knowledge, or at least a degree that suggests that I have actual knowledge about what I'm talking about.

(The truth is I ultimately want to pursue my doctorate and both teach film and television studies at the university level and conduct my own research in the field. Look out, academia, here I come!)

Me on my balcony

So to mark the occasion, I've put together a list of ten films that have shaped who I am as a passionate cinephile and have pushed me to pursue a career in this nascent field of academic study. These aren't necessarily my all-time favorite films (though make no mistake, I deeply love each and every one of them), but the films that have left the biggest impact on me. I've also organized them roughly in the order of when I first saw them, so that there's a sort-of natural flow to the list.

Anyway, the list is after the jump.