It’s Rex Manning Day

Happy Rex Manning Day, fellow Empire Records fans.

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House of Cards Review

* Spoilers below

Frank Underwood is a bad president. And I don’t mean he’s a bad president because he manipulated and murdered his way into the Oval Office. I mean he’s bad at governing. Season 2 of House of Cards left us with Frank achieving his ultimate goal. Having ruthlessly climbed the political ladder all the way up to the Vice-Presidency, Frank succeeded in manipulating the president into resigning and became the unelected Leader of the Free World.  Season 2 ended with Kevin Spacey looking directly into the camera in sinister triumph and rapping sharply on the desk (a signature of his) before the screen went black. It was a breathtaking moment but as the credits rolled you couldn’t help but wonder “What’s next?” Frank has, after all, realized his greatest ambition. Where would he go from here?

As it turns out, his sociopathic rise to the top might have been the easy part of President Underwood. No longer able to pull strings from behind the scenes, Underwood finds himself unable to enact any of his desired policies including a ludicrous jobs program that would gut social security. Presumably as president he can no longer coerce his opponents into submission leaving him hapless in a way that we’ve never seen him before.

But fear not House of Cards fans, Season 3 is still filled with power struggles and drama. It’s just that this time around it’s not Frank and Claire against the world, it’s Frank and Claire against themselves. And it looks like they’ve finally each met their match. Until this season, Frank and Claire were presented as a the ultimate power couple. A union of two equally ambitious forces whose marriage was more mutually beneficial political arrangement than fairy-tale romance. Previous seasons emphasized the interdependence of Frank and Claire so the turmoil between the two in Season 3 represented not just an intimate portrait of an unusual marriage but also a crumbling alliance that could significantly alter American and global politics.

The inward focus of Season 3, combined with the tedium of watching Frank try to govern, made the season a slower, less gripping build than its predecessors. It was a great season for Claire fans, however, as the consistently fantastic Robin Wright was granted much screen time. Claire spends much of the season struggling to get her political career off the ground and realizing that her relationship with Frank is not nearly as equal as she had thought. There were several moments when she breaks away from their alliance and in my apartment these moments had us high-fiving in support of “Team Claire.” Sure she isn’t weighed down by quite the same constraints as the President but so often in Season 3 Claire shined while Frank fumbled.

In fact, it was a great season for interesting women. Jackie Sharp returns with both ambition and vulnerability. Heather Dunbar is introduced as a powerhouse that poses a legitimate threat to Frank partly because she may prove to be equally ruthless. The thing a like best about House of Cards is the idea that as much fun as it’s been watching Frank climb to the top, it will be equally delightful to watch his downfall. And if Claire, Jackie, and Heather are the forces that topple his carefully stacked house of cards, well that’s even better.

Oscars Wrap Up

I watched the Oscars last night (obviously) and was eager to see what impact the virtual #AskHerMore campaign might have on the red carpet. I watched Robin Roberts and company on ABC and was impressed by their coverage. They mentioned the campaign explicitly which was fine but more importantly Roberts et al. asked women great questions about their films. Julianne Moore, for instance, had a great moment where she made important points about the subject of her film, Alzeihmer’s disease.

Honestly, I don’t mind that women on the red carpet are asked about their dresses. Even a fashion amateur like myself can enjoy seeing all the gorgeous dresses and chatting with her friends about which ones we liked and disliked. That’s part of red carpet tradition and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. It’s also good to have designers and their work are acknowledged. The need for #AskHerMore arose, however, when red carpet Q&A’s ventured into the realm of the absurd (see the cringe-inducing mani-cam from last year) and downright sexist. Common examples being that men seem more likely to be asked questions about their film or their character development while women are more likely to be asked about their wardrobe, hair or how they manage a work-family balance (though men with families are rarely asked the same question). It was great to see ABC break away from that trend last night, it made me really happy.

What made me less happy was some of the online snark about #AskHerMore. Some derided the campaign by suggesting that it was silly to expect thorough responses to complex questions in the frantic red carpet environment. This skepticism prompted me to Tweet this:

Plus, I think the success of #AskHerMore last night demonstrated that it is possible to ask thoughtful questions and receive a brief but insightful reply.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. The Oscars themselves were flat and while I generally find Neil Patrick Harris to be positively charming his jokes didn’t work and the atmosphere felt stiff. He made some valiant attempts to call out the Academy for its depressing lack of diversity but the impact just wasn’t there.

There were some great individual moments though. More than once Oscar recipients refused to be played off by the orchestra which was awesome. There were some truly touching speeches especially by The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore. Lady Gaga reminded the world that she is a phenomenal singer and Julie Andrews made a surprise appearance. Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” was beautiful and a great moment to acknowledge the under-appreciated (at least by the Academy) Selma. And this gif of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez reacting to Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality is everything.

While last night might have been my favourite Oscar’s red carpet so far, the ceremony left much to be desired. Here’s hoping next year’s awards are less white and more fun.

The Deep Politics of Words

It’s been a couple of weeks since Jonathan Chait published his controversial and much-discussed piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” in New York Magazine. I read it – twice – and had many thoughts about it, many of which were contradictory. At the time I thought about writing a response to it but there was so much Internet noise related to the article – either blasting it or praising it – that it felt like a needless exercise. The TL;DR version of what I would have written would read something like this: I think Chait is touching on something that exists but I am not sufficiently convinced by his piece. The examples he offered weren’t very compelling to me and his meandering argument was not satisfying. I did feel, however, that there is truth buried deep in his article and I wish had been more thoughtfully teased out.

As someone who spends a lot of time (too much time) on social media I can assure you there is tons of outrage. It’s daily, it’s constant, and it’s exhausting. Determining if it’s legitimate is much trickier though. To underscore this point Slate curated a list of daily outrages for the year 2014 and it ranges from “righteous fury to faux indignation.” Many of the examples feel like moments when the benefit of the doubt could have been extended and you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the well-meaning person being skewered by strangers on the Internet for an accidental slip of the tongue. But there are plenty of other instances where the outrage feels justified. While the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media can sometimes be unnecessarily unforgiving, they have also brought to light subtle but harmful examples of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination that are seeped into the foundation of society. Finding the balance between these two poles is difficult and as someone who finds themselves in the space between the careless Chait argument and the virulent responses to his article I am glad that a debate  is happening because it is an important one to have.

Although the Internet is frequently outraged for any number of political and social reasons, often the specific dispute between the proponents and skeptics of “political correctness” is focused on language. As tense as the debate can be it’s a meaningful conversation to have because language is deeply political. If you don’t believe me, please go live in Quebec. I loved living in Montreal, I love French and am proud to be bilingual, but you can’t live there and not notice how political the relationship between Anglophones-Francophones can be. You can’t live there and walk away thinking that language doesn’t matter.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at a recent University of Michigan initiative. The University is spending $16,000 on an “Inclusive Language Campaign” which, as MLive reports, is “an awareness program to help students be more aware of the fact that different groups around campus interpret words and phrases differently.” In recognizing the diversity of the campus, the campaign hopes to acknowledge the power of words and discourage students from using language like “fag” or “retarded” or “ghetto.” I like the initiative. In the past I have been guilty of using such words thoughtlessly and have made an effort to stop. Finding alternative language is not only more respectful it’s also, quite frankly, not that difficult. But of course, the comment section of the article is riddled with complaints that kids these days should grow a thicker skin, this is tantamount to thought policing etc.

It’s easy to dismiss this type of initiative on the basis that it’s “PC language/thought policing” but really it’s about recognizing that language matters. The campaign does not suggest or introduce mechanisms to punish use of specific language and I don’t buy into a slippery slope argument in this case. While I am wary of overdoing the outrage, there is outrage on both sides of the “PC-language” divide. Plus, I think acknowledging the power of language is valuable. How you describe people and situations says more about you and your prejudices than it does about what you are trying to describe. Asking people to think before they speak isn’t about stifling speech, it’s about encouraging empathy.

Superbowl Superstition

An article written by Eric Russell that ran in Maine’s Portland Press Herald begins with the following:

“If the New England Patriots lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1, the fault may not lie with coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady or with how much air pressure is in the football.
The fault may be Gretchen Faulkner’s.”

Why do I care? Well, two reasons. I’m a recent (but dedicated!) Patriots fan. But more importantly I know Gretchen Faulkner. I know her really well. She’s my boyfriend’s mother. 

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The Seattle Seahawks’ logo is, as Russell describes, based on “a transformation mask originating from the Native American Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.” It has been part of the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum collection for decades. It is now on loan to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum largely due to Gretchen’s initiative.

Since the mask has been displayed in Seattle, the Seahawks have remained undefeated. Gretchen, James, and I are all glad Seattle got to spend time with the mask. But frankly, we hope its luck runs out on Sunday.

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Update [February 2nd]: Even a lucky mask could not prevail over the likes of Tom Brady, Gronk Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler et al. Maybe it switched allegiance at the last moment and bewitched Pete Carroll. How else do you explain his decision to go for the pass at the 1 yard line? Either way we’ve got ourselves a Superbowl victory and Gretchen’s reputation as a Pats fan remains solidly intact.

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Call him a crybaby now, I dare you.

The Interview: Not The Satire We Were Looking For

I saw The Interview over the weekend because it became available to stream via Netflix. It was… exactly as bad as I thought it would be. Basically Tina and Amy had it right at The Golden Globes.

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NBC / Dick Clark Productions

Easily the most interesting thing about The Interview is all the hoopla surrounding its release namely Sony’s decision to not release the film in theatres after receiving threats from the North Korea government and having its computer systems hacked by a group alleged to have ties to the latter.

The film itself was actually pretty disappointing. And I had super low expectations. What’s disappointing about the film isn’t necessarily the humour; I was expecting low-brow butt jokes and misogyny. It’s that at times the film veers close to interesting satire only to immediately revert back to its low standard of vaguely racist, boring gimmicks that weren’t funny the first time but are nevertheless beaten to death.

I don’t require that humour be sophisticated, complex, or any other quality that might make it “high-brow.” I enjoy silliness whether or not it makes a salient point. The problem with the low-brow humour of The Interview is that it committed comedy’s fatal flaw: it didn’t make me laugh.

Thinking Out Loud: Oscar Nominations Edition

They’re here. The 2015 Academy Awards nominations. The full list can be found here.

Remember how I said in the last couple of posts that award shows like the Oscars (perhaps especially the Oscars) are oddly political, potentially meaningless, outdated, and woefully undiverse? Well, that certainly seems to be as true as ever. Especially the last point. Now, I have to admit that I haven’t seen many of the films in the major categories (Best Picture, Directing, Acting) but something is still painfully obvious: the Oscars are SUPER white.

Of course this fact should shock nobody but that doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed by it. There’s more I can and should say on this topic but any commentary on the nominations should probably happen after I’ve seen a few more of the films. So for now, here’s me thinking out loud on the nominations.

  • Selma is nominated for Best Picture but nothing else (except for Best Song). Doesn’t that seem weird? Serious question: how often has it happened that a film is nominated for Best Picture but none of the other major categories? Because right now, I’m thinking what Patton Oswalt is thinking:

  • Update:  I found an answer to my question! A quick Google search led me to The Official Academy Awards Database. Wow, this is truly a film and data lover’s dream come true. Please excuse me while I descend down the rabbit hole. My search also yielded a list of films nominated for Best Picture but not nominated for Best Director. What’s useful about this list is that it also provides the number of total categories in which the film earned a nomination. It doesn’t say what those categories are (and I have neither the time nor patience to go check each of them) but there’s enough information there to conclude that what happened to Selma is pretty rare at least in recent history. Since 1951, only 5 films have received a Best Picture nomination while receiving only one other nomination (including failing to win a Directing nomination). These were Decisions Before Dawn (1951), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Blind Side (2009), A Serious Man (2009), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). So it’s certainly not unprecedented but it doesn’t strike me as common either.
  • There is not a single person of colour nominated in an acting category this year. Sure, it could be that there wasn’t a single non-white actor who gave a worthy performance this year. Or it could be related to this:

  • Should I go see American Sniper? Just the trailer makes me uncomfortable and I’ve read some interesting articles recently that criticize its factual inaccuracy (apparently the film depicts him as a stand-up guy when he is actually a huge jerk). But I can’t be critical of it if I don’t actually see it. Plus, I’m open to having my mind changed. Then again I probably won’t be able to see all the nominated films before February 22nd so do I want to spend my time and money going to see American Sniper over some of the other films I have been wanting to see regardless of their recent Oscar nomination? Ugh, I still can’t decide.
  • I loved Birdman so I’m excited to see it have so many nominations. And Emma Stone, my spirit animal, has been nominated which I think is really cool! (See? I’m not a complete grouch.)
  • Birdman is also nominated for Cinematography which is a bit funny to me because I actually didn’t like the cinematography in the film at all. I felt very reminiscent of the cinematography in The Wrestler which I also hated. Just one of those things that I can appreciate but just isn’t my thing. (Aw man, I’m back to being a grouch.)
  • This made me giggle:

  • Everyone is really upset about The Lego Movie not being nominated. I want to share their outrage out of loyalty to Chris Pratt but I have to admit I still haven’t seen the movie. (I know, I know. I watch a lot of Netflix instead.)
  • I feel like Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will probably win Best Actor (and deservedly so) but is it wrong to root for Steve Carell? The thought of the former Michael Scott winning an Oscar just fills me with such inexplicable joy.
  • Gone Girl was also shafted in my humble opinion. No director nomination for David Fincher (the Twitterverse was chatting that Fincher doesn’t play ball with the Academy and so he is routinely snubbed) and no adapted screenplay either. Bums me out because I really enjoyed Gone Girl. I think it’s one of the most successful adaptations of a popular novel that I’ve ever seen.
  • I’m definitely going to see Selma this weekend.
  • TL;DR:

[Updated: January 15, 2015. Added some thoughts.]