Going through hoops: 9 alternatives to March Madness


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What drives Americans’ March Madness mania? Is it a love for the game of basketball — or merely a love of games? Team bragging rights or the individual’s need to always be right?

Humans are compelled and impelled to make choices. When presented with empty boxes to check or blanks to fill in, we cannot resist. Combined with social media madness, our penchant for picking and sharing is off the charts these days — the act alone is satisfying, as if pressing the button is what presses our buttons, not the treat that gets dispensed or the victor’s glory.

Facebook itself has its roots in a simple either/or flow chart: It sprung from Mark Zuckerberg’s simple face-off program to determine the “hotter” Harvard chick.

democracy---people-votingIf only such selection fever translated to 100% voter turnout come election time. If democracy went 100% digital, maybe voting, too, would prove irresistible.

In the meantime, to fill the check-box void before Round 3 of the NCAA basketball tournament begins Thursday, I’ve scoured the universe for interesting alternative brackets for non-hoops fans to play favorites.

 

ENTERTAINMENT SHOWDOWNS

 

  1. Only hours to go before the Philadelphia-area public media provider WHYY wraps up its NPR vs. PBS “Public Media Madness” contest. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson seems on top of the edutainment world lately. Can he rule as brainy talking head? Your other three Final Four contenders: Mister Rogers, Terry Gross and Peter Sagal. I pick Tyson over Rogers because he’s a LIVING legend (or soon to be).new-trailer-for-cosmos-featuring-neil-degrasse-tyson
  2. Minnesota Public Radio steps up the pace with music match-ups every half-hour from 9 to 5 through Friday’s final round. “The Current March Madness” started with 64 recording artists, featuring close shaves between such bands as U2 and Hüsker Dü, The Roots and Public Enemy. Today, see who challenges Elvis. Keep in mind: Times listed are Central Time.
  3. Pearl JamBeckA catty rivalry pits female characters from a defunct TV drama. The “Dallas” Divas Derby will keep you occupied through April 14. Or not. Like life down under in Dallas, it moves pretty slowly.DallasDivas

ANIMAL MAGNETISM

It’s not quite natural selection. These two popularity contests are playing out on Facebook, where you simply “Like” the picture of the species you prefer. Trash-talking takes place in the comments sections.

4. You’d think there’d be more kittehs at odds in the cybersphere, but drooling dogs drool in NatGeo Wild’s “Doggie Breed Bracket,” licensed by Cesar Millan of “Cesar 911.” This inaugural struggle is pretty much an ad for his show.

DoggieBreed

5. Anyone who knows or reads me knows I’ve plugged Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” before. But someone over there finally listened to my complaints: In previous years, organizers picked birds who don’t actually migrate. This year, there are nifty baseball cards detailing the birds’ feats. Visit today for a chance to vote in the “Airborne 8” round between this year’s vastly popular snowy owl and the spectacular painted bunting.

MarchMigrationMadness

6. OK, OK. I found a bracket featuring cats. But it’s something you need to register for, and we all learned our lesson with the Warren Buffett-Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket, did we not?  A glimpse of Apartment Therapy’s Pet Madness entrants, just to satisfy you rabid pet owners.

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FOOD FIGHTS

7. Sweet! This is just a sampler of what’s out there.  Foodsided.com’s “Starch Madness” will surely whet the appetite. In fact, this game can be played alongside the NCAA tourney. Spread out a spread of these and watch your points spread. Recent highlights from the blog:

  • In the Entree Region, an epic battle of cheese. 4-seed Grilled Cheese takes on upstart 5-seed Mac & Cheese, who is coming off a decisive, yet somewhat unexpected, Round One victory over Boneless Wings.

  • After years of being paired together in perfect harmony, Peanut Butter and Chocolate will face off as Peanut Butter Anything takes on Chocolate Cake in the 4/5 match-up in the Dessert Region.

Starch madness8. Somebody alert Chris Christie. The Trentonian is sponsoring an eat-off among New Jersey pizzerias. This one requires some insider knowledge. You wonder if it’s helping to boost the newspaper’s restaurant ad sales.

Pizza

 TOURISTY

9. That last one was touristy, but no one can trump The Washington Post‘s“Monuments Madness” for places that “place.” This civil civics war features 15 statues and one obelisk. The Elite 8 begins today, and a champion will be crowned on April 1. Which begs the question … why?monumental

Sheer madness.

P.S. Go, Spartans.basketball_data

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar picks: Picking the lint outta my brain

Hurriedly writing here, minutes before Oscars … I realize I omitted several picks in my other posts. So, for the record, just so I can honestly record my score at the end, let me fill in those blanks.

Documentary Short: Loved them all, but my pick is “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” Sad that the subject, Alice Herz-Sommer, then the oldest-living Holocaust survivor, died Feb. 23 at age 110 and didn’t live to watch the Oscars, but that makes the film all the more poignant. The only thing I didn’t like was the tone of the narration — it felt like a social studies film. “Facing Fear” — which dissects a brutal hate crime from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator — has a fighting chance. Also sticking with me: “Prison Terminal.” It tracks the death of a war hero turned murderer — and aren’t all soldiers killers? — in a prison hospice whose caregivers are fellow prisoners. Crocodile tears.  Why sentence the guy to life for killing a drug dealer? His righteous son turned him in. Another fave: “Cavedigger,” about Ra, a 65-year-old artist whose canvas is New Mexican sandstone, from which he constructs fabulous caves — rather than capture space, he creates it. His quotes are almost as life-affirming as Herz-Sommer’s. “Karama Has No Walls,” a firsthand look at the uprising in Yemen, is also gripping and important.

Documentaries, the long and the short of ’em, are possibly my favorite part of Oscar marathoning. A documentary filmmaker is what I once wanted to be when I grew up (you know, rather than ballerina or firefighter). If you really want to get something out of your two hours at the movies, skip the over-budget action movies and become a superhero for change by watching and supporting this genre.

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Tom Hollander, as a prisoner who thinks he’s God, and Martin Freeman, as the psychiatrist assigned to evaluate him, engage in a fascinating tete-a-tete in “The Voorman Problem,” my pick for best live-action short.

Live-Action Short. “The Voorman Problem” will win. Awesomely creative and truly SHORT, also with star power (the guy from “Lord of the Rings”). Anyone know why Kevin Spacey was thanked in the credits, though? I am equally partial to the French offering “Just Before Losing Everything.” Important topic: domestic abuse. Its tension raised my BP. And “Helium” (Denmark) was uplifting. I didn’t care much for the Spanish “Aquel No Era Yo” (That Wasn’t Me). Finland’s “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything” is a delightful morsel, but it feels unfinished, pardon the pun.

Film Editing. “Dallas Buyers Club.” All the way!

Animated Feature. “Frozen.” I haven’t seen such a marvelous animated feature since “Beauty and the Beast.” And this is even better. It will make you melt and puddle up.

Original Song. “Happy” will win, obviously. But that’s only because the wrong song from “Frozen” was chosen. It should have been either “Fixer-Upper” or the one snowman Olaf sings. Is it called “Summer”? Don’t even know, I saw the flick only this morning. Even so, a song must truly work with the film to win, and “Let It Go” is a dramatic high point, even if it’s not overly catchy. The song I am most excited about hearing tonight is the U2 song from the Mandela movie, tho.

(If you’re wondering why there isn’t a fifth song nominee, one was disqualified about a week after nominations came out because of inappropriate campaigning. (IMHO “Happy” also engaged in sketchy, if not despicable, marketing.) For the full story on the disqualification of “Alone Yet Not Alone,” click here.)

Let’s review Josh Gad’s performance from “Frozen” — for once a sidekick character in a Disney movie that didn’t nauseate me.

Well, I guess it’s not worthy of best song. It’s not very anthem-like, which is what the Original Song Oscar is all about. Still, “In Summer” and “Fixer Upper” were the songs I left the theater humming. And “Fixer Upper” — in a “Hakuna Matata” vein — ultimately has a positive message as a blueprint for navigating relationships. Seriously, for a Disney movie, it’s a great departure from the Prince Charming brainwashing, telling kids: Hey, nobody’s perfect. It’s all in how you look at them and learn to overlook their faults. Kinda refreshing for Disney.

Original Score. I am envious of my oldest brother, a musical genius who goes to the movies and pretty much memorizes the score. I often forget to pay attention, even though I love music and am known to set images to music as a hobby. I think “Her” may and should win (ugh, that sounds like such bad grammar!), because I definitely noticed its near-futuristic score. But because this category is the only nomination for “Saving Mr. Banks,” I would love to see it win. Its score moved from celestine piano to lush soundscapes of the Australian outback to morose, marauding music for whisky drinking to whimsical Disneyland ditties. A show of versatile virtuosity.

cateUPDATE AFTER OSCARS BROADCAST: All told, I missed 10 predictions — got 14 right, for 58% — mostly because I underestimated Gravity‘s hold on folks’ imaginations. Missed two because I failed to see The Great Gatsby and missed one for not caring enough to see The Great Beauty. Great mistakes. My big miss, of course was over Miss Amy Adams. I wanted to see an upset in the leading lady category to add a little drama to the proceedings. As phenomenal as she is as an actress and as a person, Cate Blanchett was starting to act a little smug this awards season, and none of us likes going completely with the crowd favorite. Besides, being on the verge of a nervous breakdown is not a huge stretch for any woman, right, gals? Especially those of us inclined to binge on Oscar-nominated movies.

Look for my sequel in 2015.

Oscar picks: Writing

Ironic that one of my favorite categories is getting the short shrift on the writing end (*she does the test for proper usage of “irony”) …

Anyway, with just a half-hour to go before the festivities begin, I must get it down on record.

The nominees for Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her. This is the cool, hip flick of the year, and I loved the concept and the production design (I kinda want it to win for Production Design). But the script went downhill for me three-quarters of the way in. Spoiler alert: HOW is Joaquin Phoenix’s character supposed to get a book published of the letters he writes when his job is ghost-writing those letters for other people?! Isn’t that some sort of lawsuit waiting to happen? That bugged me so much that I was disgruntled over the story’s resolution.

Nebraska

My pick: Nebraska

My prediction: Her

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In “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix’s character works for a letter-writing service — he ghost-writes personal, handwritten letters for people too busy or inadequate to do it themselves. What’s weird is: His OS publishes a book of the letters on his behalf. Kinda defeats the purpose of being a ghost writer and ruins his character arc, in my view, for him to become a successful author. Bad writing?

I didn’t see all of the nominees for Adapted Screenplay — still missing “Before Midnight” — but I am rooting for “12 Years a Slave.”

The nominees for Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

And no, I haven’t read any of the books or seen the original the sequel is based on.

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In “12 Years a Slave,” the Solomon Northup character also crafts a letter — using a whittled stick and berry juice. Amazing to think this man went on to write down his story to enrich our lives 150 years later.

Hmm. I’m thinking next year the only way to fairly judge these categories is to read all the books.

OH NOOOOOO! WHY is February the shortest month?!?

Oscars 2014: A film odyssey

It’s a wrap: my month of trying to cram in all 42 Oscar-nominated feature films and 15 shorts before the awards ceremony.

For the third straight year, I humbly concede defeat. My tally stands at a paltry 31 features and 15 shorts.

I ended quite appropriately at around 4 p.m. on Oscars day with “The Book Thief” (up for Music-soundtrack).

And isn’t that what movies are? Little book thieves? The fear, anyway, is that watching too many movies might turn our heads to mush and make us forget about reading. Although more often than not, the movies are based on books that, typically, if you’ve read them, are FAR superior to the movies.

Har-har-har. I laugh when people compare these two vastly different art forms. “It didn’t do justice to the book.” IT CAN NEVER BE THE BOOK. It’s the movie!!

1384359757000-BOOK-THIEF-MOV-JY-1658-59704130Still, ending with this Nazi-era tear-jerker, in which we watch Hitler youths’ faces redden reflected against a bonfire of crisping, curling books — “intellectual dirt,” they called it — was more than fitting. Far from a perfect adaptation of what I’m told is a magnificent read, it certainly didn’t suck.

photos-seats1Besides, it brought me back to the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, a venue I had boycotted for more than 15 years because it lacked clearly designated parking and was prime hunting grounds for enterprising, likely unlicensed tow truck companies. The week we bought our 1998 VCR-loaded, Nintendo-ready flashy green-gold Dodge Caravan LX, we went to see a movie there and it was towed lickety-split and held hostage for $150. We blamed the theater at the time because we figured someone must be getting a kickback.

78c44eed-e13e-4139-bafc-6339dd853239Well, our car and the theater survived, and today I was reminded what a cool place it is. Movies are just $6.50 (cash only, be forewarned), and it’s not just beer and pizza on the menu —  I had a pretty decent spinach-walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and their drink menu is entertaining in itself, featuring specialties like the Pulp Fiction (grape vodka, creme de cassis, Sprite and Blue Curacao), Pirates of the Caribbean (Malibu rum, pineapple and orange juices, Grenadine and cherry) and the Big Lebowski “The Dude Abides” (vodka, Kahlua and cream).

As has been typical on this month of crisscrossing the metro area, I made a couple of quick friends, other movie mavens who see the season as a sort of March Movie Madness (technically, February Madness). It’s not about the endgame, it’s about the odyssey.

My record stands at seeing 74% of all the movies nominated in every category, because you can’t predict winners with any authority if you haven’t see all the contenders. And the distributors, the weather, the theaters, plus life in general put plenty of obstacles in my way, which added to the drama. (Ask my husband about the morning I was rushing to see a 10:20 a.m. matinee before work, spilled coffee on my GPS, then discovered GPSes don’t like that and won’t work, so I went the wrong way and missed the showtime, including the 15 minutes of previews and had to abort the mission.)

That was “Frozen,” the animated feature I am sure will win tonight. I can’t fully say, because I didn’t see “Ernest & Celestine”— scratch that, couldn’t — because it isn’t yet available in the States. A dirty, dirty trick played by the Academy, handicapping all of us Oscar marathoners.

There were a few other titles like that, such as the foreign film nominee “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia), which doesn’t come out until March 19.

What other pictures am I missing? I’ll give you the Big Picture. Some of these 11 flicks I spent the month chasing, but somehow never managed to be in the right place at the right time. Others I simply didn’t care enough about to rearrange my world for. The latter category includes this first one (horrors!):

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unfortunately, by not seeing this behemoth, it rules out THREE categories for me to safely judge: Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. I wanna say “All Is Lost” for Sound Editing, “Lone Survivor” for Sound Mixing and “Gravity” for Visual Effects, but I cannot, not in good conscience.

Star Trek: Into Darkness & Iron Man 3. These two titles I wouldn’t have minded at all seeing, but because they weren’t easily available and I wasn’t gonna see “The Hobbit,” anyway, I didn’t bother. That leaves me only having seen two of the Visual Effects contenders: “Gravity” and “The Lone Ranger.” But no matter, “Gravity” will win.

Before Midnight. This omission makes me saddest of all, because the writing categories are among my favorites. It is available on Blu-ray, but I refuse, refuse, refuse to hoard any more movies. Technology will make them all refuse (clever!). Something I learned this year: Any sequel up for a screenplay award is automatically entered into the Adapted category, even though it’s as original as sliced bread. The Academy considers it based on the movie(s) that came before it.

The Great Gatsby. No great loss, I’m told. Except by not seeing it, I can’t vouch for the two categories it is nominated for: Costume Design and Production Design.

The Invisible Woman. I’m not a fan of period pieces, and because “Gatsby” was handicapping me, I decided not to spring for the rare chances I had to see this. I hate the Costume Design category, anyway. I have no clue. But I’m rooting for “American Hustle.”

Ernest & Celestine. Already covered, but I kept calling it “Ernestine & Celeste” in my mind. That’s what you get, zero name recognition!

The Wind Rises. This came out only last week. Shame on you, Oscar! Not only was I handicapped, it was handicapped.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I wanted to see this, nominated for the U2 song. But WHERE was it? Couldn’t they have brought it back when Mandela died? Somebody missed their opportunity.

The Great Beauty. Up for foreign film, it looked like the Italian version of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But I’m pulling for “Omar,” that haunting Palestinian film of betrayal and freedom-fighting youth set in the West Bank. If it wins, people can stop with the Jewish-Hollywood jokes, OK? Hollywood will have proved itself totally inclusive. (UPDATE: It didn’t win. On with the jokes.)

The Missing Picture. The missing commentary.

There you have it. My missing pictures. Everything else mentioned tonight I saw. I still have to pick/write about four more categories, but I’m starting to think I’ll blow my deadline. You’ll trust me if it’s not on record, right?

So enjoy the show tonight … and even though I’m not Catholic, I think I’m giving up films for Lent.

Oscars 2014 picks: Best Director

Before we talk director, let’s talk producer. When it comes to putting a stamp on a movie, the director traditionally holds the most sway. The industry trend, though, is for the producer to represent much more than moneybags — even to have a degree of artistic control.

maxresdefaultConsider Brad Pitt, who co-produced “12 Years a Slave” and likely cast himself. When his character speaks up near the end as the voice of reason, it’s as if he’s making a pitch for this movie. He pivots the plot, becoming Solomon’s hero. Not only is he an ambassador for New Orleans (getting the film shot there), but we understand his progressive ideals and attachment to the subject matter. And you wonder whether his influence extends further — maybe into the nominating and voting arenas.

Pitt played the same roles for “Moneyball” — producer and star. It seems if we pay actors enough, they will give back to their community by creating more meaningful art in a holistic way.

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Photo by Michael Buckner, Getty Images

Exhibit B is Megan Ellison, who produced both “Her” and “American Hustle,” two of this year’s BestPicNoms. A film-school dropout, she is a quiet creative force behind quality projects such as these and 2012’s “The Master” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Savvy, hip, embedded producers such as these are changing the way the game is played. Less division of labor … does it also mean a loss in jobs in Hollywood?

Anyone who stays through to the end of movie credits as I do, on the off-chance I can pick up some nifty behind-the-scenes factoid or catch those occasional, clever parting shots, knows it takes a village to make the director look good. In evaluating the merits of a film, the director and movie itself are entwined — which might explain why whoever picks up the Best Director Oscar is often a good clue who will win Best Picture.

According to Wikipedia: “Of the 85 films that have been awarded Best Picture, 62 have also been awarded Best Director. Only four films have won Best Picture without their directors being nominated: Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32),Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Argo (2012).”

I predict this year will prove another exception. The Best Picture and Best Director awards will be untwinned because there are so many good candidates we must spread the love. I’m just not sure how it’s gonna go down. The suspense is killing me.

The nominees:

Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Being of the Hispanic persuasion myself, I can’t suppress the pride I feel admiring Cuarón’s achievements. He is a visionary pioneer and wrangled all of these complicated moving parts to go where no director has gone before. You gotta hand it to him.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). But don’t hand it off quite so soon. “12 Years a Slave” only whetted my appetite for more McQueen movies, and I am thinking he could eclipse the fame of his namesake in the movie industry.

Alexander Payne (Nebraska). Big, big fan of Payne. This choice is painstaking. His commitment to stories that are emblematic of our culture is deep. Considering his plumbing of Hawaiian life in “The Descendants” (my pick two years ago), his work is like a collection of Americana knickknacks. I hope he does every state.

David O. Russell (American Hustle). Again, his body of work is persuading me. Last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was a revelation. His movies are like a too-short ride at a theme park.

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Only in the master Scorsese’s hands could this story have come off  as so lascivious and rich — and keep us rooting for the bad guys. The fact Scorsese consistently puts us in the head of criminals and shows us heart … he’s a genius.

I am hard-pressed to choose — I want them all to win —but, you know, just being nominated, yadda-yadda. Time is running out. So let me do this without overthinking.

My prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

My pick: Steve McQueen

Oscar marathoners: We are not alone

IMG_1986One bonus of bingeing on Oscar-nominated titles each February is the discovery of arthouses and plush venues while crisscrossing the metro area like a madwoman. The other perk? Stumbling upon fellow crazies.

I don’t mean the guy who followed me out of the theater after the “Philomena” late show insisting on discussing religion and waiting to hold the door that exited to the deserted parking lot (I darted out a different way, Mom). I mean those kindred spirits also trying to knock down as many movies as they can in a single month.

At West End Cinema in D.C. yesterday, I met Jonathan; the mother-daughter team of Cathy/Cathi/Cathie/Kathy/Kathie/Kathi/Kathey (didn’t get the spelling) and Lauren (safe guess); and a woman who left before I could get her name (no, it wasn’t like that). We composed the entire audience for the showing of Documentary Shorts B.

I was unkempt, unwashed and unprepared for any socializing as it was the fifth movie of my week atop my day job. As we sat there in semi-darkness, I first heard the sniggering when I unfolded my old-school mobile app — a stapled, crumpled checklist of every movie nominated for any Oscar, with all manner of scrawling and check marks in the margins. It was a laugh of recognition and understanding, like those at the comedy club when the joke is on you.

The mother shared the secret of her same list, and then the five of us opened up to compare notes before and after the screening, swapping insights, histories, families, dreams. That’s what movies do — they are a coagulation of inspiration and reflection.

Impressively, the mother-daughter team hailed from Olney, Md., and Baltimore, respectively. Why come so far for one rare screening? “You can’t legitimately say which one is gonna win if you haven’t seen them all,” Lauren declared. She spoke for us all.

Jonathan was missing only a handful of titles — he didn’t have the list in front of him, so he wasn’t sure. We complained to sympathetic ears about the dirty trick Oscar pulls by nominating movies not released in the States yet, such as animated feature “Ernest & Celestine,” a British import, which none of us could see before the envelopes are opened; it comes out later this month. If it doesn’t win, we probably won’t bother.

And what’s with foreign films, indies and shorts being 2010-2012 productions but still qualifying for the 2014 awards ceremony? The distribution date is like a sell-by stamp on a canned good. Very iffy.

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The lobby at West End Cinema, two blocks north of the Foggy Bottom Metro stop.

It was a rollicking good time with newfound friends, whom I hope to run into again next year at West End Cinema — a gem of a salon, which, incidentally, is hosting a special screening tomorrow, March 2, of a certain live event that shall not be named in a party atmosphere — if anyone is looking to commune with other cinema buffs.

Our little band of brethren chatted afterward — but it was only a little past 6 p.m., so on my way back to the suburbs to catch a 9:15 feature at Cinema Arts in Fairfax, Va., I wondered what else I could squeeze in. My phone had died and I could no longer check movie times. On the Metro, I spied a guy hidden behind the WaPo “Weekend” section with the movie grid nearly visible and plopped down beside him. As I leaned in for a better look, he scooched over. Oh.

So what the heck. I had time. At both Courthouse and Ballston, I hopped off the train and walked to the respective box offices to check whether there was anything I could see I hadn’t seen.

It wasn’t likely.