Saturday, December 10, 2011

Take Shelter (2011) Review

No film in 2011 has surprised me as much as the Jeff Nichols masterpiece Take Shelter. Not only is this just about the most believable drama of the year, but it is also a compelling thriller, but only if you want it to be. The film has so much to offer, even in the package of its tiny budget and somewhat simple story.

The film centers on a quiet, gentle man named Curtis (Michael Shannon), who works at a heavy construction site and makes his home in a small town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis, the son of a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, is worried about his own mental health in his mid 30s, about the same time that his mother was diagnosed. Curtis begins having self-destructive dreams about an apocalyptic storm that turns everyone insane and violent. This urges him to build up a long-dormant tornado shelter in his backyard, which in turn tears down his closest relationships and only intensifies his hallucinations.

In the hands of another director, this movie may have been a psychological thriller or some kind of puzzle. There is a major sense of not knowing whether Curtis is insane or some sort or prophet, but that is not the emphasis of the movie. Had this movie been taken on by Shyamalan or Nolan, it would have been supernatural and had lavish special effects, but Nichols is after something different. His visuals are subtle and effective. His story is disturbing and convincing. His characters are developed and true. Instead of being about the mystery of it all, it is about the psychological battle of Curtis.

Curtis is not a typical mentally challenged man in movies. He knows that his hallucinations are such most of the time. He is embarrassed by the fact that he has this illness, yet he cannot shake his visions. He somewhat secretly starts building his storm shelter, not only because it would cost a lot more than they have, but because he does not want anyone, not even his undeniably supportive and loyal wife, to ask questions about why he is doing this in a town that has not seen any sign of rain in some time. Curtis checks out books about mental illness and goes to a free consulting clinic in attempt to try his hand at a self-diagnosis. It is these traits that make him a starkly different and frighteningly real character. The mix of shame and conviction in Curtis is a side of mental illness that is not explored by normal movies.

Jeff Nichols, the superb new filmmaker who also directed the indie hit Shotgun Stories, has already established a style that is unlike any other working director. He has a small town setting in both of his films, and the disturbing realism is what makes the movies work. Take Shelter has more of a supernatural feel, but that is only a surface trait. The movie is about so much more. The film will leave the audience to ponder whether Curtis is crazy or prophetic, in a brilliant scene that culminates everything that happened prior to it.

The performances are in the actors’ eyes. Michael Shannon’s rough appearance sheds any sentimentality that the film may have had. Shame and pain is showed on his face the entire movie, but Curtis is a gentle man, which makes his inevitable outbursts and fits even more shocking and emotional. It is the performance of the year, and maybe the best in the last couple years. Nichols can really bring out the best in Shannon, gathering the actor’s two finest performances.

Jessica Chastain, who is in the midst of one of the most astonishing years any actress has had in recent memory, is brilliant as the supportive wife. She is somewhat oblivious to the fact that her husband might be crazy, suggesting that he go to the doctor when he wakes up in sweat or following a seizure, instead of going to a psychiatrist. Some of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie are simply Chastain looking bewildered at Shannon, not knowing who that man is or what to think. Chastain and Shannon work wonders together.

There is so much to appreciate about this movie. The final 45 minutes or so will have the audience absolutely spellbound and in total silence. The music is minimal yet very effective in reflecting the mood of the few scenes that it appears in. The majority of the movie is just really quiet and meticulous. It is sad and true. After the movie, there is a stunned feeling rampant in the audience, and there will undoubtedly be discussion about what the final scenes imply and how to analyze them, but to reduce the movie to being solely about those scenes would be diminishing a fascinating study of a man and his slow, painful descent into realized insanity and the impact it has on him and his family. Jeff Nichols has fashioned a masterpiece of minimalism, one of the best and most thought-provoking movies of the year.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2011 Holiday Madness Bracket

Now that the BCS is set, we can set our Holiday Madness bracket! If you ask me, this is much more intriguing than watching an automatic rematch in the championship as well as 4 top 10 teams being left out of the BCS because of rules on how many from each conference can get in (Arkansas & South Carolina) and because they don't have enough fans to make money (Kansas St. & Boise St.). This system uses some calculations, but let's the play on the field determine who wins it all instead of a computer. If you want a full explanation on the rationale behind this system, check out my article on this written last year. Here is our final tournament field.

LSU Tigers
1. LSU (13-0) (SEC Champ)
This is an easy one. They are the only undefeated team left, they have had a rough toad to get there, and they have passed every test. They not only are the top seed by a wide margin, but they also have to be the favorite.

Alabama Crimson Tide
2. Alabama (11-1) (At Large #1)
This is the spot of the greatest debate right now. A computer formula determined that Bama deserved to play a rematch in the Championship over other potential one-loss teams. In this scenario, all the computers determined was that Bama gets a higher rank and a potentially easier road to the championship. It would be great to see, but instead we don't get a chance to see it on the field.

Oklahoma State Cowboys
3. Oklahoma St. (11-1) (Big 12 Champ)
Try to explain to me why they aren't #2. They lost one game to a conference foe (that was better than people give them credit for) on a day that two members of their athletic staff were killed in a tragic plane crash, and all other tests they passed including beating their unbeatable rival in the Bedlum game. In reality, they're left out of a chance to play for the championship without the SEC getting a chance to be tested against the best of the other strongest conference in the nation. In fantasy, they still get their shot.

Stanford Cardinal
4. Stanford (11-1) (At Large #2)
This is an interesting team in this tournament. They lost once to a speed team, but they can play pound for pound with anyone. Their success depends on the luck of the draw.

Oregon Ducks
5. Oregon (11-2) (Pac-12 Champ)
I want to know how the Ducks jump 4 spots for beating a .500 team in a championship game at home. It makes no sense. With that said, they are good enough to be in the top 5 looking at who they have lost to this year.

Arkansas Razorbacks
6. Arkansas (10-2) (At Large #3)
Due to BCS regulations only allowing two teams from one conference in the BCS (which is a rule I actually like), the #6 team who only lost to the #1 and #2 teams on the season is forced out of the a BCS game. However, in Holiday Madness they get another crack at it. What I want to know is how they don't play this week and still find a way to leap frog the #7 team.

Boise State Broncos
7. Boise St. (11-1) (At Large #4)
If it weren't for one missed FG to a top 20 team, we might be talking about a LSU-Boise St. Championship game. Instead, Boise St. and Kellen Moore (who worked his career record as a starting QB to a record setting 49-3 this weekend) continued to be disrespected by the nation at large. In a week where #5 and #6 lost and the Broncos dominate yet another team, instead of Boise St. moving up in the rankings, they stay put while Oregon and Arkansas jump over them without doing anything particularly impressive. Arkansas didn't even play! In this tournament, Boise St. finally gets their shot to show what they got.

Kansas State Wildcats
8. Kansas St. (10-2) (At Large #5)
The last team to get in the tournament on their national ranking is a team that not many people know anything about. There would be great debate on whether the Wildcats deserve this spot over South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and others, but it would be much less controversial looking at if the 8th or 9th best team in the country deserved a shot at the championship and going to a computer to determine it than it is now using a computer to determine the only two teams that are allowed to have a shot. By the way, as a side note, if you are going to spend so much time developing a ratings system to determine the best teams in the nation, use it to set all the BCS bowl games at least. It is a complete tragedy and travesty that Boise St. and Kansas St. were left out of BCS bowl games simply because they wouldn't draw enough fans for them to make enough money. Instead, they bring in a couple teams that don't deserve to be there because they draw more fans. Now try to tell me that this system is not about the money.

Wisconsin Badgers
9. Wisconsin (11-2) (Big 10 Champ)
After getting redemption by defeating Sparty in the first Big 10 Championship game, the Badgers get in and can cause quite a stir in the tournament. They would be a dark horse.

Clemson Tigers
10. Clemson (10-3) (ACC Champ)
This team completely confuses me. They spend the first two months of the year looking unbeatable. Then they spend a month looking like a team that didn't even look it deserved a bowl. They then go on and beat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game for the second time this year, which were the Hokies only two losses on the season. Now which Tiger team shows up in the tournament?

TCU Horned Frogs
11. TCU (10-2) (MWC Champ)
Thanks to that one missed FG on the Smurf Turf, the Horned Frogs win the Mountain West over Boise St. and get into the tournament. It is for teams like this that the bracket will be most beneficial.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles
12. Southern Mississippi (11-2) (C-USA Champ)
Only my brother saw this one coming. A month ago, he told me that Houston would win out until the the Conference USA Championship Game where they will lose to Southern Miss who has the best defense they will face all year. Sure enough, they did and earned their way into the tournament.

West Virginia Mountaineers
13. West Virginia (9-3) (Big East Champ)
Due to some crazy technicalities in the system, the Mountaineers win the tie-breaker to take the Big East championship. One stipulation of this tournament would be the need for a conference championship in each conference so there would be no need for this tie-breaker business.

Northern Illinois Huskies
14. Northern Illinois (10-3) (MAC Champ)
If there is a team from a lesser conference that could pull off a major upset, it would be the Wolfpack. They are better than their brand gives them credit for, which is all the BCS looks at.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
15. Louisiana Tech (8-4) (WAC Champ)
The WAC has been depleted over the last few seasons, and it will continue to deplete, however the conference champ still deserves a chance to play for the whole thing. Tech has showed in the past that they are never an easy win as well.

Arkansas State Red Wolves
16. Arkansas St. (10-2) (Sun Belt Champ)
Although they are from the lowly Sun Belt, they are one of only 3 teams (LSU and TCU being the others) that went undefeated in their conference. That counts for something, and makes them not to be looked over.

First Four Out

South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina (10-2) - Having 4 SEC teams in the top 10 either shows the conference's dominance or weakness at the bottom of the conference. Having the BCS Championship Game between two SEC teams now doesn't let us find out which it is. With Stephen Garcia kicked off the team, Marcus Lattimore out for the year, and the Gamecocks still able win games, as good as the rest of the team may be I am leaning toward the latter.

Houston Cougars
Houston (12-1) - They were so close!!! Only one game away from a conference title and an undefeated season. Instead they drop all the way to #19 in the BCS after only one loss to a top 25 team. They are the only one loss team outside the top 7 and they are almost out of the top 20. What a shame.

Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma (9-3) - If they beat Oklahoma St. they would've been in as the conference champ. Instead, they are on the outside looking in with Kansas St. taking their spot.

Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech (11-2) - The ACC is not a strong conference outside of the top 2 teams. However, the Hokies only found one team they couldn't beat all year. The only problem is they lost to Clemson twice.

Here are the matchups and my predictions on how I think a tournament like this would've played out.


Friday, December 16

TCU Horned FrogsArkansas Razorbacks
#11 TCU at #6 Arkansas
This would be a true test for both teams. TCU has shown the ability to beat the big team, but Arkansas has only lost to the top two teams. Although the Horned Frogs make it a game in the first half, the Razorbacks pull away in the end. Arkansas over TCU, 31-17.

West Virginia MountaineersStanford Cardinal
#13 West Virginia at #4 Stanford
This is a very interesting matchup. Luck has had trouble on the big stage this year, and this playoff, no matter what round, is a big stage. The only team Stanford has had trouble with all year is speedy Oregon. West Virginia is in many ways a poor man's Oregon, but not quite as good as they need to be yet. Although they give them fits, the Cardinal advance. Stanford over West Virginia, 24-10.

Saturday, December 17

Southern Miss Golden EaglesOregon Ducks
#12 Southern Mississippi at #5 Oregon
You are always told in March Madness to beware of the 5/12 matchup. However, I don't think there will be an issue here. The Ducks are too fast and high-powered. The Southern Miss defense could slow them up here and there, but the Ducks would run away with it. Oregon over Southern Miss, 45-24.

Clemson TigersBoise State Broncos
#10 Clemson at #7 Boise St.
One of the greatest home field advantages in all of football is the Smurf Turf in Boise. Add in the fact that it will be in the middle of December with a southern team going to play there, and the Broncos should have no problem dominating. Add in the fact that Clemson is the most up and down team in the nation, and Boise St. could either dominate or win a close one. Either way, the Broncos win. Boise St. over Clemson, 34-17.

Arkansas State Red WolvesLSU Tigers
#16 Arkansas St. at #1 LSU
In March Madness, no #1 has ever lost to a #16. In Holiday Madness, that shouldn't change especially when that #1 team is LSU. Arkansas St. is fully worthy of their spot in the tournament for winning their conference, but LSU is just too good. LSU over Arkansas St., 45-10.

Northern Illinois HuskiesOklahoma State Cowboys
#14 Northern Illinois at #3 Oklahoma St.
This would be a shootout! Northern Illinois has a strong offense, as does Oklahoma St. However, the Cowboys showed against the Sooners that they also have a defense that can step up and stop the most powerful of offenses. However, I wish to believe they don't show up here, although the Cowboys still pull it out. Oklahoma St. over Northern Illinois, 41-35.

Louisiana Tech BulldogsAlabama Crimson Tide
#15 Louisiana Tech at #2 Alabama
Louisiana Tech always provides a tough game to big schools, but I don't see them having an answer for Trent Richardson. Alabama over Louisiana Tech, 38-3.

Wisconsin BadgersKansas State Wildcats
#9 Wisconsin at #8 Kansas St.
This is an interesting matchup. Although it is in Manhattan, the Badgers would be heavily favored. Kansas St. plays everyone tough, but Wisconsin just has too many weapons. It would be a lot closer than the experts would say though. Wisconsin over Kansas St., 24-21.

The 8 teams eliminated from the playoff in the first round (Arkansas St., Kansas St., West Virginia, Southern Miss, Northern Illinois, TCU, Louisiana Tech, and Clemson) would be placed in New Year's Day bowl games that were left vacant.

Ticketcity Bowl - Arkansas St. vs. Louisiana Tech
Outback Bowl - Clemson vs. West Virginia
Capital One Bowl - Northern Illinois vs. Southern Miss
Gator Bowl - Kansas St. vs. TCU


Friday, December 23

Alabama Crimson TideBoise State Broncos
#2 Alabama vs. #7 Boise St.
This would be an interesting matchup. Boise is a powerful team that no one knows much about. They have also succeeded when faced with every major challenge they have faced, at least Kellen Moore's Broncos. Bama would be a true test to just how far Boise has come. This would be one that would come down to the end. When it comes down to the end, Kellen Moore gets the ball and wins games. Bama showed against LSU that they can't finish a team off in the closing seconds like Boise has shown. One game, neutral site. Boise St. over Alabama, 24-23.

Saturday, December 24

Oklahoma State CowboysArkansas Razorbacks
#3 Oklahoma St. vs. #6 Arkansas
Oklahoma St.'s high-powered offense would overpower Arkansas in a way that would make Mark May blush. Oklahoma St. over Arkansas, 45-20.

LSU TigersWisconsin Badgers
#1 LSU vs. #9 Wisconsin
In a lot of ways, I wonder how LSU keeps on winning. They don't have a remarkable offense that helps them score points, but they have a devastating defense. They have shut down any offense they have faced, whether it be Alabama, Oregon, or West Virginia. I think they can handle Wisconsin, but it will be a struggle. LSU over Wisconsin, 27-21.

Stanford CardinalOregon Ducks
#4 Stanford vs. #5 Oregon
Here we have a rematch of one of the more interesting games of the year. Andrew Luck would adjust you would think, but you thought the same thing going into the game this year too after they lost last year. Oregon has their number, and that number is incredible speed. Oregon over Stanford, 41-31.

This round eliminates Alabama, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Stanford. Their seasons are over, however they have still had the opportunity to play in a bowl so the school can get their money.


Saturday, December 31

Oklahoma State CowboysBoise State Broncos
#3 Oklahoma St. vs. #7 Boise St.
Talk about a matchup that would be great for football but terrible for the ratings! The Cowboys are too high-powered with Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weedon, but there is magic on the side of the Broncos. I think Oklahoma St. pulls it out simply because they have been in that position more often. Boise St. would have a tough time coming back after a hard game against Bama. Oklahoma St. over Boise St., 31-21.

LSU TigersOregon Ducks
#1 LSU vs. #5 Oregon
Another rematch for Oregon. Once again, nothing tells me the result will be any different. LSU has the physicality that tends to be the Achilles heel of Oregon. LSU over Oregon, 34-28.


Saturday, January 7

LSU TigersOklahoma State Cowboys
#1 LSU vs. #3 Oklahoma St.
Maybe it's because this is what I think the real championship should be, but this is what it comes down to. LSU's defense is just too strong. The Honey Badger shuts down Justin Blackmon, and LSU rolls. LSU over Oklahoma St., 31-20.

So LSU ends up the champion, but I honestly don't see a situation where they don't beat whoever they play. So what do you think? Look at the bracket, and fill it out yourself. It's a much better debate to have. I'd rather keep my head in this fantasy world than think about having the rematch we have in the championship.