Wednesday, February 25, 2009

2009 Oscar Wrap-Up

Soon after the 81st Annual Academy Awards ceremony wrapped up, I began to wonder how memorable this one would be. Hugh Jackman had done a fine job, but was his opening Sweatin' to the Movies number going to be as memorable as Billy Crystal inserting himself into the year's best pictures? Were any of his punchlines going to become catchphrases? Were any of his routines going to... did he have any actual routines?

I found myself wondering all the more when, the next morning, I listened to the latest edition of one of my favorite podcasts, Battleship Pretension. The hosts of that show made brief mention of the year Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars and I realized... I have absolutely no memory of Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Oscars. I remember that she'd been an Emmy host one year. And I know I watch the Oscars every year. But Ellen and Oscars do not combine anywhere in my brain.

Maybe that's a good thing. After all, what makes a good Oscar host? Perhaps it's better for the host to be forgettable, as the night is meant to focus on the movies themselves. (Actually, the night is probably more about the celebrities rather than the movies they're in.)

One odd thing about Jackman's hosting performance was how little he actually appeared on screen. He had a big opening number, and then another number halfway through. Other than that, he only seemed to pop up once every half hour or so, and only for a few seconds at a time. Will Smith probably had more total screen time than Jackman. (After presenting three consecutive awards, Smith joked about still being on stage to do a fourth, saying that Jackman was backstage taking a nap.)

Historically, I think most great Oscar memories either unusual acceptance speeches or great host jokes. Will Jackman be memorable has a host? Will he make it into future Oscar highlight reels? The thing that sticks in my head the most is when he stuck his face through a wall of reverse-aging Benjamin Button bodies. We'll probably see replays of that in future years. We also might see replays of Jackman proclaiming "the musical is back" after the next few years prove that the musical is not, in fact, back. (Shouldn't the year to proclaim the return of the musical have been the year Chicago won Best Picture -- which I still consider a tremendous error.)

Overall, I think Hugh Jackman did a perfectly fine job hosting. But I missed the quick reactionary quips and jibes that comedian hosts like Steve Martin, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock have provided in past years.

My Score Sheet

Of the 21 categories I placed guesses on this year, I got 12 right and 9 wrong. Not terrible, but not great. My biggest misses were in the acting categories. I missed both of the actresses. (Why oh why didn't I bet on Kate Winslet in a holocaust film?!) And I'm still surprised that Mickey Rourke didn't grab Best Actor. Although, as I noted in my Oscar predictions post, Sean Penn definitely deserved it. (Loved his acceptance speech, too.)

I would be remiss if I didn't announce that my girlfriend Helen outguessed me in our Oscar pool. Damn those actress categories!

A category I completely deserved to win: Wall-E for sound editing.

In Summary

When all is said and done, there were few surprises this year. The telecast was enjoyable to watch. And, in an unusual turn of events, it actually stuck to its schedule and ended on time! Now that we know it can be done, future telecasts have no excuse.

The name of the game this year was balance. There were political speeches, but they didn't lean too heavy. There was humor, but not too much. There was singing and dancing, but not too much. Nothing was extremely bad, nor extremely great. It was just... nice.

I give this year's Oscars a B+.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

2009 Oscar Liveblog

This is an archive of the liveblog comments I made during the February 22, 2009 Oscar ceremony via Twitter. I've added some additional comments to help put things in context. The times listed are Pacific Standard.

After far too many hours of pre-show on far too many networks -- all of which is best to ignore -- I tuned into ABC at 5 to watch the final half hour of hype before the proper ceremony started. While every single moment of it was embarrassing, the most embarrassing part is when they made the accountants at PriceWaterhouse Cooper walk the red carpet, doing turns as if they were one of the starlets wearing glamorous dresses.
  • When they went to school to become accountants, did they ever imagine they'd have to suffer THAT indignity?
  • No video montage before the host introduction? It's a new era.
That was me making a lame joke about the Australian accent. It was funnier in the moment.
  • My prediction that this ceremony would include more singing and dancing came true sooner than I expected.
Some people enjoyed the Tony's-esque nature of Hugh Jackman's hosting, some didn't. I thought it was tolerable. I'm just glad they kept it to only two numbers.

The broadcast tried a new method of honoring the nominees in the acting categories before the awards were handed out. Instead of showing a clip from the movie, they had previous Oscar winners talk about each nominee individually. Our first look at this method was for the supporting actress category. I wasn't too sure about this method at first.

  • I hope they don't do these three minute tributes for each category. We'll be here a looooong time.
Penelope Cruz won.
  • I consider Penelope Cruz a surprise win. Is that the case, or am I out of touch?
Penelope Cruz gave part of her acceptance speech in Spanish.
The Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay categories were fired off quickly, one right after the next.
  • Now that those pesky writers are out of the way, let's get to the Oscars we care about.

  • It was very generous of the Academy to include clips of -Space Chimps- in the animation montage.
...Because seriously, that movie would not be on the Academy's radar at all if there weren't so few animated movies per year. Didn't see any clips of, say, Meet the Spartans during any motages. Yes, the Academy is permitted to pass qualitative judgments.

After the montage, the Best Animated Short award was handed out. The winner was called La Maison en Petits Cubes. To which I said...
...but I now realize actually means "the house IN small cubes." That's what three years of French class taught me.

Strange thing: the makers of that animated short with the French title were Japanese. The winner, in very labored English, thanked a series of people and items (such as his pencil). He ended by thanking "Mr. Roboto."
  • Funniest moment of the night so far: self-stereotyping Asian guy
  • Either that, or a Mister Roboto contributed significantly to the production of the animated short winner.
Despite my early reservations, I grew to truly enjoy the extra time and attention being given to the admiration of each individual craft. Turned out they were paying extra attention to everyone, not just the actors.
  • I changed my mind - this extra time they're taking to appreciate the crafts they're honoring is a nice touch.
  • The best acceptance speeches are the ones that aren't a list of thank-you's.
...I said that after a particularly boring laundry-list-style acceptance speech. But it's always true, no matter what. Future nominees should take that into serious consideration.
...Because she's not; but she keeps getting foisted into the spotlight as if she were.

Later, a German filmmaker won Best Live Action Short.
Hugh Jackman took the stage again, and I realized he'd had a particularly long absence.
  • I keep forgetting Hugh Jackman is host. We're not seeing much of him. Ah, more singing and dancing
That was the second and final major dance number. It pushed the limits of tolerability. But I was willing to let it go... a feeling I would have retracted had there been any more.

Soon came Heath Ledger's win for The Dark Knight.
Bill Maher handed out the Best Documentary award, and was his usual smarmy self... which I enjoy.
People towards the back of the auditorium had to negotiate a small fence in order to get to the stage.
  • The visual effects guys couldn't figure out how to unlatch their little fence.
He really does. Check out any footage of him.

Jerry Lewis was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
  • Just so that the public is aware, Jerry Lewis is being protested by a faction of MS sufferers. But he wins anyway.
I was made aware of this when I found myself in Hollywood the day before the ceremony. Click here for their complaints.

Jerry spoke for less than a minute.
  • That was a very short acceptance speech for a lifetime achieve-y type of thing.
Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman won two Oscars in ten minutes - one for Best Original Score, and one for Best Original Song.
Then came the annual tribute to those who died in the last year.
  • Yay! Tribute to dead people! My prediction for biggest applause: Heath Ledger.
  • Oh, right... Heath was in LAST year's montage. I'd like to change my vote to Paul Newman.
The nominees for Best Picture were listed off. When they cut to David Fincher in the audience...
  • I believe David Fincher just smirked when people cheered for him.
What were those white ribbons that some of the nominees were wearing?
Kate Winslet takes Best Actress.
  • I like Kate Winslet and all. I just didn't think she'd win for -The Reader-.
Robert De Niro makes with the funny when talking up Sean Penn before the Best Actor winner was announced.
The whole night, that kid was glowering and pouting. We need an intervention now before he grows up taking himself too seriously.
Finally, Slumdog Millionaire swoops in to take Best Picture.
  • -Slumdog- is a win that makes perfect sense... which is not something you can say for every best picture winner.
...I'm looking at you, Chicago.
  • Since -Slumdog Millionaire- won, the whole auditorium should break out into a Bollywood dance scene.
  • I think this was a pretty good Oscarcast. It lost some momentum after the first hour and half maybe, but it was all good.
And it ended up time, too.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Station Wagon

Toward the end of last year, I got rid of the first car I ever truly owned. It was a 1995 Ford Escort. Already old when I bought it in 2004, its purpose was to be as cheap as possible, and to get me from place to place reliably. These things it achieved. It always started up when I turned the key, and it never once broke down on me. Granted, there were some expensive mechanics' fees that helped keep it running. But in general, it was the cheap, no frills ride it was supposed to be. (And by "no frills," I mean extravagances such as a functioning washer fluid pump, rear window defrosters, and an accurate speedometer.)

In late fall, the Escort began bleeding antifreeze. Things had gotten to the point where I knew it made more sense to spend my money on a new car rather than on fixing an old one. I loaded the car with enough antifreeze to get it to a dealership, knowing it wouldn't have to make the return trip.

As I began my life with a new car, my girlfriend Helen asked me if I missed the Escort at all. No, not really. Granted, it had accompanied me through some pivotal years in my life. But man, that car was crappy from the start. As the years went on and my commutes became longer, it became more of an issue to drive around in the harsh Los Angeles afternoons without an air conditioner (my options being to either roll the windows down and eat the gallons of exhaust blowing in my face, or keep the windows up and get heat stroke). It barely had enough power to get up to highway speeds if it was on even the slightest of inclines. It would leave me in a foul mood after any drive longer than 10 minutes. I was pretty much entirely happy to be rid of it.

But there is a car that I was sad to lose. It was Helen's family station wagon.

Helen and I first met back in our hometown of Erie, PA, while we were still in high school and both too young to drive. And from the first time her parents ever picked me up to take a bunch of us somewhere, there was always the station wagon. It was a 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier wagon. Blue. And just like my Escort, it was old before I'd ever laid eyes on it.

As I got to know Helen and her family better, I discovered that her dad was of the old school handyman variety. He could fix most of the typical problems you'd have with your plumbing or your wiring and, yes, your car too. No need to call the repairman. He bought the wagon brand new in 1984 and, aside from the occasional too-big problem, he kept the thing running by himself.

When Helen learned to drive, she more or less became the primary user of the station wagon. It wasn't fashionable, but it gave her the freedom to go where she wanted when she wanted. When college came around, Helen's parents drove her and the entire contents of her bedroom to and from campus using that wagon. Eventually, they decided to just let her keep the car with her at college. This was particularly helpful when senior year came around and she had to go out to a forest and observe birds. (Don't ask.)

Then came graduation. I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, and Helen made the decision that she wanted to be a part of that. Her parents made the decision to give us the station wagon so that we'd have a starter vehicle as we began our new lives on the other side of the country.

The car was 18 years old at that point.

As Helen and I made our arrangements to move to L.A., Helen's parents took the wagon into the shop for a full inspection and as many last minute repairs as necessary. When the mechanics were told that this car was being prepared for a trip to L.A., they placed bets on whether or not it would make it.

The big day arrived. Helen and I loaded most of our Earthly possessions into the rickety old wagon, said our goodbyes to our family, and made for the highway. We went from the snowy Pennsylvania winter down to North Carolina where my brother and his family were living at the time. The next day, we drove to Memphis. Day three, we met up with some family in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The next day, we drove hours and hours and hours through unending desert... and we were still in Texas! It got late, but we forced ourselves to continue driving so we could get to New Mexico. We refused to accept the fact that an entire day's worth of driving in a straight line could leave you still in the same state, no matter how goddamned big that state boasts about being. We made it to the tiny town of Anapra. It was barely past the Texas state line, but that's all we needed.

Day five, after much more desert, we finally made it to Los Angeles. The station wagon didn't hesitate the whole time. We'd been worried about breaking down in the desert. Not only did those harsh conditions seem likely to cause a breakdown, but it also would have been the worst area for us to be stranded. But no, we made it.

Not only did we make it all the way to L.A. in the wagon, but we kept it running for a year after. But eventually, as will always happen to a car, it began leaking and stalling and falling apart. It became more of a liability than a convenience. We decided to cut it loose.

We drove into Marina Toyota one Saturday afternoon just to shop around. By this time, the sound of the station wagon pulling to a stop was akin to the sound of a small plane coming in for a landing. As we opened the car doors, we were greeted by a salesman.

"Someone definitely needs a new car today," he said to us, his squinted eyes casting their narrow judgment over our vehicle.

We left the dealership that day signed to the lease of a new Toyota Echo. We had no idea that we had already driven the station wagon for the last time. But there we were clearing out our belongings, leaving behind the rips and scratches and crumbs and soot of 20 years worth of life.

We turned for one final look before we drove away. There it was, standing alone, isolated from the rest of the cars on the lot. A trooper. A faithful servant. A tour guide. A champion. It accompanied us from the sands of Lake Erie to the sands of the Pacific Ocean. It watched us grow up. It guided us safely into adulthood. It had always been there, always a part of the journey, always taken for granted. And now we forcing it into retirement. Now we had to turn our backs on it.

The Echo was a really great car. Small, zippy, excellent gas mileage. We had it for less than a year before some jackass slammed into us on the 405, rendering it an accordion. Easy come, easy go. I'm glad this was not the fate of the station wagon.


One summer, Helen and I noticed that the odometer on the station wagon was approaching 999999, and that it would soon roll over to all zeroes. A milestone for any car. An event few cars actually achieve. A completely clean slate.

For a full week, every time we'd get into the car we'd take careful note of how close we were to hitting that magic moment. We couldn't wait to see it happen. Then, during one drive, Helen glanced at the mileage and her face dropped.

"Aww," she mourned. "We missed it."

I looked at the odometer. We hadn't just missed it; it was already 14 miles past. We couldn't even pretend that we'd caught any part of it; it was long gone. There was only one thing we could do about it.

"I guess we're just gonna have to go another million miles."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Night of the Year of the Dog

[ This is a repost of a item originally posted on Wednesday, April 11, 2007 ]

Night of the Year of the Dog

Despite spending the better part of four years working on various television productions, I've had more "Hollywood moments" as a result of my girlfriend. Said girlfriend, Helen, has little interest in working in entertainment. She likes saving animals. A couple years ago, she landed herself a nice little job at an animal rescue organization. Turned out that that organization was headed by Shannon Elizabeth.

Some people don't recognize the name Shannon Elizabeth. Usually, "the naked chick in 'American Pie'" is enough to get everyone on the same page.

Oddly, when I got to meet Shannon Elizabeth in person, I was not distracted by the fact that the first time I had ever seen her, it had been when she was naked in "American Pie."

Our most recent Hollywood moment came last Thursday [ April 5, 2007 ], when we scored seats to the premiere of "Year of the Dog." Even though Helen no longer works for the rescue organization, and even though said organization had nothing whatsoever to do with the production of "Year of the Dog," several L.A.-based rescue organization were invited and Helen was a second round draft pick.

What made me happy was that this was a movie I was interested in seeing, with a creative team that I knew and liked. It was written and directed by Mike White, who's worth looking up if you don't know his credits. Actors in the movie included John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Laura Dern, and Molly Shannon, all of whom I've been known to like.
We arrived at the Paramount lot pretty close to show time. Of course, show time was delayed, because celebrities tend to meander across the red carpet. Had I been allowed to walk the red carpet, I would've ran, full tilt and screaming, into the screening room. Instead, Helen and I found a nice little side route into the theater. It's better this way; flash photography isn't good for my skin. You also shouldn't feed me after midnight.

The evening got off to a rocky start. One of the audio channels wasn't working... the primary dialogue track, no less. As the technicians got to work fixing it, Laura Dern dragged Molly Shannon to the front of the room, along with Josh Pais, to fill some time with a little improv comedy. Molly came off incredibly uncomfortable, and bolted from the stage as quickly as she could. This means that Laura Dern and Josh Pais, not necessarily known for their improv skillz, were more at ease with impromptu performances. Meanwhile Molly Shannon -- you know, from "Saturday Night Live," that show where people perform in front of a live audience, and have to be prepared for anything -- was shy in front of the crowd. How does that work?

The movie finally got rolling, and it was really good, though not what I expected. The marketing is a little off. I had been led to expect more "Freaks and Geeks," "Dead Man on Campus" Mike White. This is more along the lines of "Chuck & Buck," "The Good Girl" Mike White. I encourage people to see this movie... but I encourage you to see it when you're in the mood for drama. Don't let Molly Shannon's presence fool you... this is not a comedy. Yes, of course, it has funny moments. But it's a drama.

Then came the after party. Now, the thing about me is, I don't really do the whole mingling with strangers thing. Sure, there are celebrities I'd love to talk to. But when you're at a party like that, what do you have to talk about? How is that going to go? You know that you don't really have anything to talk to them about. They know that you know that. You could go the total idiot's route and say, "You know, I wrote a script you might be interested in..." Don't kid yourself. They're not interested.

So, Helen and I stood off to the side, looked, pointed, kept a low profile. We met up with some other people from Helen's former rescue organization. We ate and drank. There were dogs. There were people who were prettier than us. [ I wasn't a listener at the time, but the co-host of a podcast I now enjoy was also there -- Joe '09 ]

Some celebrities we saw, in addition to the people who are in the movie: Jack Black, Ben Stiller, that chick Ben Stiller is married to who was on some episodes of "Arrested Development," Lawrence Bender, Tia Carrere. Funny thing about Tia Carrere... I saw someone who looked like her, and told Helen that I saw someone who looked like her. Then we found out the next day that it was actually her. She actually looks younger now than she did back in the "Wayne's World" days. That's why I thought it wasn't really her. But it was.

I also think I saw Aamer Haleem there. But I also think I'm the only person on planet Earth that knows who Aamer Haleem is, let alone would recognize him at a movie premiere.

We also saw Jayma Mays. Funny thing about Jayma Mays... we were actually seated right next to her during the screening. (Ok, technically we sat next to her boyfriend... who flirted with Helen, by the way.) I didn't really recognize her until Helen told me who she was. If I HAD recognized Jayma Mays, I probably would've been all like, "Bitch, why don't you just let Henry get with Ugly Betty?" Actually, there's no way I would've done that. What am I, 10? No. I'm not.

Some celebrities we didn't see, but who were apparently there, according to the pictures we later found: Lea Thompson, Fred Willard, Judy Reyes from "Scrubs." Ok, HER, I would've talked to if I had seen her. I probably would've gone all "Chris Farley Show" on her: "You remember that time where you hid Rowdy from J.D. and Turk? That was awesome." Actually, that's another thing I wouldn't have done.

Someone else who was supposedly there, but we somehow completely missed: Drew Barrymore. Take THAT, dude who made "My Date with Drew." You worked your ass off to get a few minutes with Drew Barrymore; I could've been hanging out with her all night, and I don't even care. "Ah, snap!" as the kids say these days.

Not in attendance: John C. Reilly and Peter Sarsgaard... who I would've pulled aside and gone (in pirate voice), "Saaaaaaarrrrs-gaaaaaaaarrrrrd." Or wouldn't have. But I probably would've been thinking it so strongly, that he would've been able to hear it emitting from my head.

Also not in attendance: Shannon Elizabeth. You know... our reason for being there. Oh well. We didn't get kicked out or anything.

As we left, we got gift bags. Unfortunately, the gift bags were filled with stuff for dogs, not stuff for humans. What sucks about that is, I'm a human. But the bag itself is really nice. From Gap, I think. And I guess it's ok that we got stuff for dogs, as Helen stays in touch with various dogs. (She calls them more than they call her.)

So, that's what it's like to go to a movie premiere when you had absolutely nothing to do with the making of the movie and you're not a celebrity. It's a lot like going to a normal showing of a movie at your local multiplex, except the seats are nicer. And the people who are in the movie are there with you. And it's free. And it's on the property of the studio that made it. And you get to see it before most other people have a chance to. And there's food, but only in small portions, and you feel like an ass if you take too many samples. And people are dressed nicer. And there's photographers.

So it's actually quite a bit different. And special. It might give one a sense of superiority... until one remembers that he's only there because of his girlfriend. His girlfriend who has NO CREDITS, by the way. Nope... no credits at all. Unlike her boyfriend. Who HAS credits, but doesn't get invited to movie premieres.

Smug bitch.

[ NOTE: Mike White will be appearing as a contestant on the new season of The Amazing Race, beginning February 15, 2009 on CBS. ]

Thursday, February 5, 2009

2009 Oscar Predictions

Once again, it's that magical time of year when certain movie titles and actors are awarded asterisks next to their names. ("*2009 Academy Award winner.")

As I previously noted, I didn't find 2008 to be a particularly good year in movies. There were a few truly excellent movies, but most of the movies that should have been great ended up bland. I don't want to undermine a whole crop of movies, but there was very little that stood out as extraordinary. Think about last year's Best Picture nominees. Even if you didn't love "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood," you have to at least admire them for being unique and inspired and technically masterful. This year's nominees almost seem obligatory. "An earnest recreation of historical events? All right, we'll nominate it." And I'm a guy who loves biopics.

Despite of the dearth of exciting movies this year, I always enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the Oscar ceremony (the pomp slightly more than the circumstance). And, as usual, I expect to maintain a high ratio of accurate guesses about who will win. Below, some analysis and predictions.

Achievement in Makeup

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • Slumdog Millionaire
This category isn't necessarily my strong suit, but it seems pretty clear that the flashiest use of makeup is Benjamin Button. I'd expect the prize to go to the makeup artists for that film.

Achievement in Sound Editing

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • WALL-E
  • Wanted

Achievement in Sound Mixing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • WALL-E
  • Wanted
Sound mixing is recording the practical sound at the time of shooting. Sound editing is cutting it all together in post production. Again, not areas that I know a lot about with regard to evaluating quality. Seems like Dark Knight would be a strong contender for Mixing, while WALL-E stands out for Editing.

Achievement in Visual Effects

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
These are all strong contenders of equal quality. How do you determine which one to award? Well, for one thing, I'd say The Dark Knight has more overall momentum than the others. Additionally, I think the effects for Dark Knight were the most seamless and subtle, and therefor the most effective.

Original Score

  • Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • James Newton Howard, Defiance
  • Danny Elfman, Milk
  • A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
  • Thomas Newman, WALL-E
The movie with the most momentum this year is Slumdog. The score is likely to be recognized as a significant contributor to the style and the emotional resonance.

Original Song

  • "Down to Earth," Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; WALL-E
  • "Jai Ho," A.R. Rahman and Gulzar; Slumdog Millionaire
  • "O Saya," A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam; Slumdog Millionaire
"Jai Ho" is the song the cast dances to at the end of Slumdog. It's the triumphant, feel-good-est moment of a feel-good film.

Achievement in Art Direction

  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Duchess
  • Revolutionary Road
I think the stylized production design of Benjamin Button is likely to be awarded here.

Achievement in Cinematography

  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire
The Dark Knight is the solid winner here. This is the first major studio release designed and shot specifically for IMAX, and they knocked it out of the park. It set the gold standard by which all future narrative IMAX films will be compared.

Achievement in Costume Design

  • Australia
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Duchess
  • Milk
  • Revolutionary Road
This may surprise you, but this category is not one of my strengths. My fallback position has always been to side with the period piece; but this year the joke's on me: they're all period pieces. I'm placing my bet on Revolutionary Road. This is little more than a hunch. But Kate and Leo in their '50s garb certainly rings the Old Hollywood bell that's likely to remind the Academy of Edith Head.

Best Documentary Feature

  • The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
  • Encounters at the End of the World
  • The Garden
  • Man on Wire
  • Trouble the Water
The two movies here with the most momentum are Encounters and Man On Wire. Encounters is the latest from the well-loved (and rightfully so) Werner Herzog. But Man On Wire was very popular, and my guess is that it will grab the prize.

Achievement in Film Editing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • Slumdog Millionaire
The successfully executed fragmented timeline of Slumdog is likely to give it the edge in this category.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

  • Bolt
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Wall-E
In 1992, Disney's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. It remains the only animated film to ever receive a Best Picture nomination. The Best Animated Feature category was implemented in 2001. There are pros and cons to the existence of this category. On the one hand, it's drawing more attention to more animated films than ever before. It's legitimizing them in a way that they've always deserved but rarely enjoyed. More people are viewing animated films as the unique and inventive art form that it is. On the other hand, the creation of this category can -- and essentially has -- lead to ghettoization. Take this year's Wall-E. Emotionally, intellectually, and technically, this is an absolutely remarkable film. Easily one of the year's best. I'd put it up against any of the year's Best Picture nominees. But unfortunately, the Academy chose to stick it in a category that can only be considered "less than." Will Wall-E win this category? Easily. But in a more just world, it would have been a strong contender for Best Picture.

Original Screenplay

  • Dustin Lance Black, Milk
  • Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
  • Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
  • Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
  • Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, WALL-E
This is a highly competitive category this year. Each is deserving. Each has a solid, stand-out characteristic that's reason enough to give it the statuette. After the position on Wall-E expressed above, I could obviously see the award going there. But a lot of attention has been paid to Dustin Lance Black's script for Milk, and I'm thinking the prize could end up going to him. This, I predict, will be the only major award that goes to the more-deserving Milk.

Adapted Screenplay

  • Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
  • Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
  • David Hare, The Reader
  • Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
The top three contenders here are Forst/Nixon, Doubt, and Slumdog. As I will discuss in greater detail soon, this year belongs to Slumdog. It will win this category.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

  • The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)
  • The Class (France)
  • Departures (Japan)
  • Revanche (Austria)
  • Waltz With Bashir (Israel)
The Class and Waltz are your two strongest contenders here. The merits of The Class have been frequently debated amongst critics. I have a feeling that the very fact this movie inspires such passionate debate indicates a likely win.

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

  • Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
  • Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
  • Sean Penn, Milk
  • Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Anyone who pays attention to the work of Robert Rodriguez knows that Mickey Rourke made his comeback several years ago. But those "lesser works" were ignored by the critical community. The big story this year is Mickey Rourke's comeback. He already won the Golden Globe, and he will win this. But in any other year, Sean Penn would have been awarded for his fantastic performance as Harvey Milk.
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
  • Josh Brolin, Milk
  • Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
  • Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
  • Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
This goes to Heath Ledger. And that would be the case if he were still alive, too.

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

  • Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  • Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  • Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  • Kate Winslet. The Reader
  • Meryl Streep, Doubt
I'm leaning towards Anne Hathaway on this one. These are not the most exciting performances from Jolie or Streep. It's nice that little-known Melissa Leo was nominated for little-known Frozen River; the extra attention drawn to that movie is well deserved (from what I've heard; haven't seen it yet). Kate Winslet could win -- she had a hell of a year -- but most agree she should have been nominated for Revolutionary Road instead of The Reader. Yes, it's looking like Anne Hathaway.

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Amy Adams, Doubt
  • Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Viola Davis, Doubt
  • Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
I'll be honest - I think this one's too close to call. The most likely candidates are Amy Adams and Marisa Tomei. I think the Mickey Rourke momentum might carry over to Marisa Tomei. But don't hold me to that.

Achievement in Directing

  • David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
  • Gus Van Sant, Milk
  • Stephen Daldry, The Reader
  • Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

With a few notable exceptions, the Best Director award most often goes to the director of the year's Best Picture. I expect that to be the case this year. Danny Boyle will win Best Director.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire
In the waning months of 2008, I had several arguments with a coworker about whether or not The Dark Knight would be nominated for Best Picture. The coworker admitted to a prejudice against superhero movies; but beyond that, he claimed that The Dark Knight simply wasn't good enough to be considered a best picture. I noted that the Oscar hopefuls of the year were shaping up to be letdowns. This turned out to be the case. The Dark Knight deserved not only a Best Picture nomination, but a win... especially considering the competition. I saw Slumdog Millionaire the Saturday before it won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. I was surprised at its win. I really liked the movie, but felt there were significant flaws that would keep it from winning any major awards. The police interrogation framing device goes nowhere, and is too easily dismissed. And knowing a bit about the way game shows are produced, there wouldn't really be the overnight break as depicted -- a plot point which is vital to the timeline of the movie. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire isn't a live show; but the emotional payoff of the movie doesn't work unless they fudge that fact. (Well, maybe Millionaire is live in India; I guess I don't know that for sure.) The "big" dance number at the end was a bit of a disappointment to me. Have you ever seen a real Bollywood dance number? Slumdog's doesn't come anywhere near that. But all of this is incidental. Slumdog is a good movie -- sweet, dramatic, and with an appropriate happy ending. It's also the clear standout -- easily the most memorable -- in a list of unextraordinary nominees. Looking back, why was I surprised it won the Golden Globe? Slumdog was the clear winner then, and it is again now. Oh, and Academy... The Reader? Really? The Reader? That's one of your Best Picture nominees this year? Dark Knight doesn't get nominated, but there's room on your list for The Reader? Not to be harsh, but who loved The Reader? Audiences didn't care for it -- not that that's ever a measure of awards worthiness (nor should it be). But critics were apathetic about it too. How in the hell did that movie end up on the list? I usually defend the Academy against people who say that they're out of touch, but... damn, they were totally out of touch with that pick. Anyway, Slumdog will win Best Picture. So those are my predictions for this year's winners. Do you disagree? Strongly agree? Let me know in the comments. On Oscar night, I'll be live blogging during the ceremony via Twitter. Click here to follow me. The 81st Academy Awards ceremony will air on February 22, 2009 at 8pm eastern/5pm pacific on ABC.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Driving Vin Di Bona

[ Continuing my project of reposting articles from the now-defunct, here is a story from February 2007. ]

Driving Vin DiBona

From the very start -- 1990, according to IMDb -- my dad was a huge fan of "America's Funniest Home Videos." The rest of us liked it, but he LOVED it. Every Sunday, the family would gather together to watch the latest in videotaped buffoonery, as hosted by Bob Saget. I was 9.

Even as a youngster, I was a credits-watcher. I don't know why, but I'd always considered credits a part of the show. I had always been a TV addict, so I suppose it was my natural inclination to watch whatever popped up on the screen. If you watched the show, why wouldn't you watch the credits that went along with it? I didn't know who any of these people were; but I knew there must have been a reason their names were there.

The Vin DiBona Productions logo was a memorable one. It was simple, but effective. An orb would spin around the middle of a graded blue background. As it spun, it would unravel, revealing the cursive signature: "Vin DiBona Productions." My dad would often recite the name because, let's face it, Vin DiBona is a pretty sweet name. It just is. Who was this Vin DiBona? Why did his name get to spin around a blue screen all by itself? As I grew older, I began to understand production logos better: how people went about creating shows and forming companies and clouding our airwaves with nonsense like "Sit, Ubu, sit." My viewership of "Videos" eventually flagged. I was a teenager, and I had better things to do. Such as, I don't know, watching different shows. My dad remained a steady viewer, witnessing the awkward periods of host transitions, theme song changes, and name rebranding (by now, they've dropped the word "Home" from the title, although I believe it's still part of their mailing address). High school. College. The "real world." One day, I found myself driving a minivan around L.A. I looked to the right, and there, in the passenger seat, was none other than Vin DiBona himself. Through circumstances that I'm sure will be detailed in some future writings, my friend and former roommate, Rob, ended up working at Vin DiBona Productions as an office- and sometimes set-production assistant. On the occasion of a two-week trip out of town, Rob convinced the higher-ups to let me fill in for him. During this time, Mr. DiBona was buying a new car. It seems Vin is something of a muscle-car enthusiast and, after 15+ years of "AFV," certainly has the money to indulge his tastes. When the hour approached for Vin to pick up his latest prize, the other PAs were already occupied. It fell to me to drive Vin to the dealership to pick up his latest acquisition. At this point, I didn't know Vin all that well. I'd only seen him in person once, having a brief moment to say "hi" as he passed through the lobby. Ah, the lobby. The offices of Vin DiBona Productions are very nice. Tidy, earth-toned and wood-paneled. And on the wall next to the reception desk was the signature I had become so familiar with in my TV-watching youth: Vin DiBona Productions, in all its shimmering, brass-plated glory. Other than that brief encounter in the lobby, I only knew what Vin looked like from the full-crew group photo Rob appeared in for the 2003-2004 season. Santa Claus. Vin DiBona looks like Santa Claus. I'm not the first person to think it or say it. (I may be the first person to blog about it.) In fairness, Vin probably weighs less than your average depiction of Father Christmas. But his hair is white, from the crown to the bottom of his full beard. He has a kind smile, and ruddy cheeks. He's one of the few people in the entertainment industry to wear a button-down shirt and tie to work every day. And he's really, really nice. Cool, even. Several people, on separate occasions, assured me that Vin was "a cool guy." Hence, I was comfortable calling him "Vin," instead of "Mr. DiBona." First, I had to drive one of the company cars over to Vin's house to pick him up. The company had two cars. There was a passenger van and a minivan, one of which had that ever-familiar "Vin DiBona Productions" scrawl along the side. I always insisted on calling that one "the Van DiBona." To this day, I insist that's funny. To this day, I'm the only one I know who ever laughed about it. I had issues driving the Van DiBona. I'm a small-car type of person. I like the ones that can fit into compact spaces. I've driven larger cars, and even the occasional U-Haul truck. But they've never been in my comfort zone. Tough luck for me. Vin was expecting to be picked up in the Van, not in my '95 Escort. Pushing on, I made it to Vin's house in adequate time. Did I say house? Mansion. Mansion. Apparently, 15 or so years of "America's Funniest Videos" affords you more than just a place with a six-car garage. The design, the craftsmanship, the furnishings. I'll refrain from going into detail, for the sake of the DiBona family's privacy. But it's one of the nicest places I've ever seen. I've since been on even more expensive properties than the DiBona estate; though grander and pricier, Stately DiBona Manor is simply nicer, classier, more tasteful. Now, the part where I freaked out Vin DiBona. Already uncomfortable behind the wheel of a minivan, and further uncomfortable with a stranger observing my driving habits, and even further uncomfortable because I had no idea where we were going, I confess that my nerves were quite a bit keyed up. Vin was giving me step-by-step directions as we came to each intersection. I'm the type of guy who likes to know three or four moves in advance. But I wasn't going to tell the Big Boss Man how he should be giving me directions. I just had to do it his way. Vin eventually directed me to the 405, and I couldn't wait to get on it. Even if traffic was jammed, at least I knew I'd be on it for a little while, and I wouldn't be receiving piecemeal instructions every five seconds. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to merge onto the Highway of Freedom, I failed to notice that the on-ramp was at a stand-still ahead of me. I was picking up speed. Just as I reached that critical point where, after passing, it would have been too late to avoid some sort of collision, Vin whooped, "Oh, look out!" and then reflexively braced for impact. But there was no impact. I hit the brakes fast but smooth, gliding to a perfect stop just inches away from the bumper in front of us. Playing it completely cool -- I could be an actor, if I wanted to be -- I replied, "Don't worry. I saw him." Could you imagine if I had to call my dad and tell him I had gotten Vin DiBona into a car wreck? Where do you even begin? In my head, I pledged to take the rest of this drive slowly and carefully. "Don't hurt Vin." We merged onto the 405, and the rest of the trip went smoothly. We were on an instruction-free stretch of road. Vin struck up a conversation. As promised, he was a really cool guy. I told him how much my dad loved the show. He was gracious. He told me a little bit about the design of the inside of his house, specifically the material used on his couches. Then he asked what I wanted to do for a living, as, obviously, no one intends to be a PA for their entire lives. (Since moving to L.A., I've met one guy who seemed content to be a lifelong PA. I'm sure I'll talk more about him in future writings.) I told Vin my goals and ambitions. Suddenly, he was reminded of a story he'd heard, and he began to tell it to me. It was the perfect, ideal "Hollywood dream" type of story. It's the type of story that inspires hundreds of people, year after year, to move to L.A. and take their chance at hitting it big.A month or so later, I returned to my regular job at "The Amazing Race." In the course of office conversation, I had the opportunity to relay the story of success Vin had told me. My boss at the time -- who, for the purposes of this blog, requested to be aliased as Jack Donaghy, which I'm willing to oblige with a smirk -- reacted somewhat negatively to the story. "That's a one in a million shot," said Jack. "You can't count on something like that. That's like hitting the lottery." I disagree. The heroes of the story were smart and prepared. Sure, it was pure chance that this specific opportunity came up for them. But if it hadn't been this opportunity, it would have been another one. At the very least, they would have eventually gotten an agent, who would likely have been able to get them work somewhere else. This wasn't hitting the lotto. This was preparation-meets-opportunity, which is how someone famous once defined "luck." So, here is the story Vin told me that day. Being a third-hand (or more) retelling of the story, certain facts and details have doubtless gone missing. In fact, it's likely that some parts of this story are entirely made up. We have to accept the possibility that none of this happened at all. But, by God, it's still a great story. Besides, it's probably mostly true. It was the first season of the 1980s sitcom "Silver Spoons." By Vin's telling, the show encountered some troubles early on, and was not expected to last long. Eight episodes had been delivered, and people were packing it in... including two set PAs -- also friends -- who aspired to be writers. Following standard protocol, the aspiring writer team used their free time to write spec scripts of existing shows. And since they had such intimate knowledge of it, they decided to write a spec episode of "Silver Spoons."

Without warning, a decision came down from the network: they wanted to order a full season of the show. Great news for the people on the show, except for the fact that they hadn't been writing any more episodes of the show, having been certain it was all over. Panicked and rushed, they instituted an open-door policy for script submissions. Anyone who had any scripts or story ideas should pitch immediately.

The end of this story is obvious, but still exciting. The PAs submitted their script, it was accepted, and a new writing team was born. The Hollywood Dream came true. You move out to L.A. and you get discovered. Boom, you're rich and famous. (Well, maybe writers don't exactly get famous, but you get the idea. General success. Dreams come true.)

With that, I dropped Vin off at the car dealership. I've never seen the guy in person again since then. But I'm a fairly regular viewer of "Videos" again, which means there's no conflict over what to watch when my parents come to visit. During one of my parents' visits, Rob got a surprise gift for my dad: an autographed headshot of Vin DiBona. I'm not sure why Vin has a headshot. I don't think he's done any acting. Rob thinks it's for publicity; like if they need a picture of Vin to accompany a story involving him in Variety. Likely headline: "Alphabet Net renews 'AFV' through end of century."