Movie memes: Cross-pollination of mainstream flicks


First things first. I share Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee’s consternation over this year’s #OscarsSoWhite snub. Seems to be a pattern. A baffling black-white one.

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Will Smith in “Concussion,” proof Hollywood is not an even playing field

And I was so looking forward to seeing Concussion, certain that Will Smith would be nominated for his transformation into a serious Nigerian. The trailer alone — that small furrow of his brow — seemed award-winning. Nothing’s stopping me from seeing the movie still … except time. Can’t possibly cram it in this month if I don’t hafta. This controversy puts the “cuss” in Concussion. On MLK Day, no less.

Four days since nominations were announced, my movie-viewing score stands at 8/37+0/15, or 22%. In the past few days, I rewatched Spotlight and Steve Jobs (to share the experience with my parents) and picked up Brooklyn, The Big Short, The Danish Girl and Room.

Besides acting inequities and lily-white actors, other patterns are popping up from film to film.

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Comedian Amy Poehler voices the Joy character, who goes through a roller coaster of emotions, in “Inside Out.”

For instance, the name Joy. Not a common female name, yet three honored movies feature Joy protagonists: Inside Out, Joy, obs, and Room. In the latter two, Joy seems ironically named, as neither character is particularly joyful, though I have yet to experience Joy.

In Inside Out, Sadness plays a vital supporting role to Joy — brings to mind Stevie Wonder’s hit Joy Inside My Tears. The Disney/Pixar animated feature is  a teaching tool to help kids name and access their emotions and realize there is no joy without sadness.

Speaking of kids, another echo is the 5-year-old‘s perspective, from Jack in Room and when we first meet Lisa in Steve Jobs. Also, remember when Lisa weaves through the puffy-cloud racks of tutus backstage at one of her dad’s dog-and-pony shows? That dreamy indoor landscape is echoed by a tutu array at Ulla’s humble theater in The Danish Girl. I’ve looked at tutus from both sides now.

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The spotlight is on gender-identity and sexual-abuse issues in “The Danish Girl” and “Spotlight,” respectively.

Another theme/meme, this time between The Danish Girl and Brooklyn: Lili (Eddie Redmayne) finally blooms, abandoning the painter she was and finding frilly work as a sales counter girl, gossipy and giggly with the other gals, selling perfume … same as Irish immigrant Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), eventually a no-nonsense accountant who first struggles to fit in through a department store job, selling nylons and such — nylons! Lili’s gateway drug! Eventually both fair-skinned lasses feel comfortable in their own skins, but they’re like sisters on the journey. Ellis hardly speaks and Lili mostly whispers.

Then there’s the iPodThe Big Short opens with narrator Ryan Gosling introducing us to banking ghoul Lewis Ranieri: “You might not know who he is,” he drones, “but he changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.” Hey! Point for an African-American icon! A historical montage flashes past, with images of — hello! — the first Macintosh, which is a co-star of Steve Jobs; the first iMac, also making a cameo in Steve Jobs; and a haunting image of the WTC twin towers with a large bird (is it a plane?) dodging past.

No spoilers here, but the dawning of the iPod in Steve Jobs was an emotional peak for me. The device did, in fact, transform my life. Seems poignant, with 2015’s streaming music wars all but killing our beloved iPod. And though the twin towers are but a footnote both in The Big Short and Spotlight, they register melancholy whenever glimpsed.

Visual and thematic cross-references like these, themes and memes, likely jump out only to Oscar marathoners — proof there’s nothing new under the sun, nor the Klieg lights, in the same awards season. It takes cluster viewing to suss out creative parallels.

Can one get a concussion from watching too many movies too fast?

My 2016 Oscar Rustle-Hustle

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Next up: These two, together knocking out eight nominations

Confident this year I can do it: see all of the feature films and shorts nominated for Academy Awards in the top 24 categories within the six-plus weeks between Noms and Statuettes.

For 2016, there are 42 unique films and 15 shorts.

Given Fifty Shades of Grey is nominated for original song, I will change the rules slightly: I can’t bear to look upon that movie and shall eliminate the pressure to see the five song nominees, rather sampling only their songs. (Besides, “The Hunting Ground” will win that category, thanks, Gaga, and I’ve seen that movie — DONE!)

So, I need to tally only 37 feature films plus 15 shorts.
Score so far: 4/37+0 (11%).

Last year I couldn’t participate, due to homeowner’s woes, but in 2014
I finished with 31/42+15 (74%). In 2013, 23/38+15 (61%). Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

If I manage even 28 features plus all of the shorts, I win. Bundling each of the three shorts categories into four “movies,” as they’re presented at the local arts cinema, translates to consuming about five features a week, easy-peasy.

Here is the list, in order of appearance — as stacked at oscars.org — plus number of multiple nominations by my quick count (pardon errors):

FEATURE-LENGTH

Speaking of pressure, here's a little for "Mad Max: Fury Road" ...

Speaking of pressure, here’s a little for “Mad Max: Fury Road” …

  1. The Big Short – 5
  2. Bridge of Spies – 6
  3. Brooklyn – 3
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road – 10
  5. The Martian – 7 (seen it, twice)
  6. The Revenant – 12
  7. Room – 4 (read the book)
  8. Spotlight – 6 (saw it on Thanksgiving)
  9. Trumbo
  10. Steve Jobs – 2 (saw it on Halloween)
  11. The Danish Girl – 3 (reading the book)
  12. Carol – 6
  13. Joy
  14. 45 Years
  15. Creed
  16. The Hateful Eight – 3
  17. Anomalisa
  18. Boy and the World
  19. Inside Out – 2
  20. Shaun the Sheep Movie
  21. When Marnie Was There
  22. Sicario – 3
  23. Cinderella
  24. Amy
  25. Cartel Land
  26. The Look of Silence
  27. What Happened, Miss Simone?
  28. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
  29. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – 5 (saw it on Christmas Eve)
  30. Embrace of the Serpent
  31. Mustang
  32. Son of Saul
  33. Theeb
  34. A War
  35. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
  36. Fifty Shades of Grey (song)
  37. Racing Extinction (song)
  38. Youth (song)
  39. The Hunting Ground (song) (seen it twice)
  40. Spectre (song)
  41. Ex-Machina – 2
  42. Straight Outta Compton
... and a little pressure for Eddie Redmayne

… and a little pressure for Eddie Redmayne

SHORTS

  1. Body Team 12
  2. Chau, Beyond the Lines
  3. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
  4. The Girl on the River: The Price of Forgiveness
  5. Last Day of Freedom
  6. Bear Story
  7. Prologue
  8. Sanjay’s Super Team
  9. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
  10. World of Tomorrow
  11. Ave Maria
  12. Day One
  13. Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)
  14. Shok
  15. Stutterer

Fun aside: I was reading my 84-year-old mama the list, and she said, “Oh! Fifty Shades of Grey! I loved that one!”

Upon further probing, turns out she meant Grey Gardens. Phew.

 

Marketing minions

I’m disgruntled over those Despicable minions propagating on every which product lately, from McDonald’s WTF unhappy meals to Twinkies and push-pops. None of this can be good, nor good for our kids. Oh, sure, the squishy yellow stumps with headlamps or goggles or whatever they are are cute and entertaining … but is that enough to mean something other than a gilded goose for the few artists, creatives or corporate conglomerates feeding off them?

Minions

It starts as a movie, innocently enough, but it rarely ends there. Actually, it’s never innocent. Movies cost too much to be innocent. No one can conceive of cuteness or cleverness worth the celluloid without considering what else they can sell to support its making, distribution and net-profit skimming. That’s why too many movies feel more like advertisements for franchises and video games than flights of fancy. All that CGI and digitation is built in to translate instantly to other platforms, until we’re awash in yellow squishies. I just can’t get my head around it as a thing that should make me happy. Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of the movies since Despicable Me, which left me perplexedly morose.

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Maybe it’s because they look so much like smiley faces, which begat emoticons and emoji, which just make me angry. Have a nice day!

While on a walk in Reston near an office park recently, of all places, the scent of water lily and, later, honeysuckle, hoisted me back to my childhood and a toy that meant something to me and might even prove to be the last thing I recall once I’m in the throes of dementia and can conjure only songs and smells of the petrified past.

My Kiddle Kolognes. Lily of the Valley, to be specific. She was always my favorite, a little genie in a bottle who served to delight and detox me.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.34.56 PMMy playmate Elaine Hewlett didn’t like her — she preferred Violet. That was fine with me because we would spend endless hours setting up our Kiddle village and the nine Kologne sisters: Apple Blossom, with green hair; blue-haired Bluebell; white-locked Gardenia; blonde Honeysuckle; orange-headed Orange Blossom; Rosebud the redhead; Sweet Pea — was she pink? Violet was la-la-lavender, and my queen, Lily of the Valley, had lily-white hair you couldn’t comb because of too many blossom tangles. I’ve always preferred wild-looking, unkempt hair, and maybe that’s why.

I wonder if my mom — my 84-year-old mom who handed me a Minions fruit snack to-go after I visited her this month on her birthday — was as taken with the Kiddles, and that’s how I managed to collect them all a few times over, after their scents inevitably diminished. I don’t recall ever begging her for the next one. One day I simply had a completed set.

Could be analogous to the Beanie Babies craze, when we mothers were more obsessive than our kids with each new release (aka birthdate). For me, the ones with the typos were the best. But there was that year we realized the Beanies had exceeded our home’s storage capacity and outlived anyone’s interest — or maybe it dawned on us such consumerism was making us anxious — so I wholesale donated them to my uncle, an Internet entrepreneur, for him to make money off of. (Except those three with typos, still in plastic, in my closet.)

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My Kiddle Kolognes served multiple purposes, teaching me about botany, color, alliteration, geography (I looked up Cologne, Germany, on a map thinking it must be spelled with a “K” because that sounded German and maybe they originated from some fantastic garden there). There was also the natural aromatherapy accompaniment, ensuring calm and creative play while seeding my vivid imagination.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 2.43.52 PMLooking at them now, of course, on eBay, they appear as chintzy as the minions. Probably just as evil, too, made by Chinese slave labor and lining some Mattel mogul’s gold-flecked pockets. And the marketing — although there was never a Kiddles movie or video game, that I know of, the whole K-K replacement of letters, doctoring the language, smacks of brainwashing — cleverness with an agenda. $$$$$$$$

Perhaps the concept taught me, though, how to be a decent headline writer and seeded my career in marketing ideas to the masses. $$

Minions2

One can never quite gauge the impact of toys on our future selves. Yet I ache to tone down the herd mentality of fads and flimsy must-haves and commercialized collectibles and beg parents to let children explore on their own, as I imagine in the days before Toys “R” Us and its “R” Us spinoffs — the bygone days of paper airplanes, pitched pennies and pickup sticks.

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And sucking helium.

Hey, you, Apple: I’m getting off-a your cloud

Feeling an impending darkness over all this cloud business.

Feeling an impending darkness over all this cloud business.

Apple is in 700 billionth heaven. But all I see are clouds ahead.

On Tuesday, the visionary tech leader broke through the market ticker tape to become the first American company valued at $700 billion or more — $710.7 billion, precisely, nearly double the worth of the next-closest contender, ExxonMobil, trailing at $385.4 billion.

On one hand, I’m proud, because I picked Apple eons ago — back in the naïve Nineties — to win the war over Microsoft. I’d always been a Mac-head: I bought in to the original Macintosh toaster; my 20GB click-wheel iPod was an answer to a prayer; and the iPhone is more than my personal assistant — we’re attached at the hip.

Still, I have a nit to pick.

Over the holidays, I decided to upgrade my decade-old, dual-core PowerMac G5 with a sleeker, faster machine. I had been feeling a bit caged in, still running Tiger OS on the beast.

hqdefaultI hadn’t kept pace with the leopards and other big-cat platforms because, despite my tech prowess, I guess people of a certain stripe have a hard time changing their spots.

I’m certainly not one to put the drag on the sails of technology. After all, I was an early adopter of the Super Betamax, lugging that wonder machine into my college dorm long before there was a Blockbuster on every corner. And it was only last year I tossed my combo clock-radio-rotary phone, which worked fine but was crowding out my iPhone, iPad and Kindle Paperwhite on the nightstand.

You get my drift.

So I was stunned to discover, having missed a few R&D cycles, that the new MacBook Pro laptop I brought home had no disk drive. Where were they hiding it this time? I mused. I felt like someone on “Star Trek” encountering a new life form, pressing everywhere for a hidden button, using crude sensors and probes. After a few days with it, fussing and fuming over the insistent logon for “the cloud” — we just weren’t bonding — I decided to return it in favor of a 27-inch iMac. Again, the internal disk drive was missing, but I figured a desktop would better support an external burner, three external drives, the VCR and my assorted cameras and peripherals.

Truly, I’m the one feeling peripheral, thanks to Apple’s grand designs.

My hobby is videography, so my primary aim in getting a new workstation was to produce DVDs or Blu-rays — not illegally, but as a service to clients, theater people, family and friends.

Yet here was Tim Cook declaring: no more disks, or even discs. Such technology is going the way of the dinosaur, just like credit cards (Apple Pay) timepieces (Apple Watch) and passwords (Apple’s TouchID). Your 3,000-plus CD collection? Toast. Let it go. Want to share your stuff? Introducing Apple’s virtual theater, where the world theoretically could have access – it’s all already in the public domain, even before you and your copyright expire. Plus, extra virtual space is going to cost you. Oh, and you’ll need a compressor to even upload or transfer, conveniently available for another coupla hundred at the Apple Store.

I’m certainly anti-clutter and pro-decluttering. That’s why my vinyl collection is stored off-site in a storage unit — outta sight, outta mind, outta pocket. Each month another $200; I keep repurchasing my stuff.

I’m all for keeping things “safe” — yet, thanks to whistle-blowers and alarming data breaches, it’s no secret there are no true hacker-free zones online.

I'm hungry not for more technological support but respect.

I’m hungry not for more technological support but respect.

My beef is: How does Apple get off thinking it can reprogram ME? Is this monolithic corporation Big Brother in a palatable disguise?

The erosion of my confidence in Apple — maybe technology in general — started with iTunes and the proliferation of MP3s over albums. In sync with its logo, Apple took a bite out of music quality, as MP3s merely “sample” sound, using a compression algorithm roughly one-eleventh the size of the original audio source. I never could abide those musical “dropouts” in MP3s, the tinny, tiny experience.

Now the heirs to Steve Jobs are applying more “Air” pressure to turn my personal data or creative handiwork into vapor. I resent anyone making that decision for me, and I refuse to pay twice for what I buy – first for “fair use” privileges that aren’t fair, and then for storage in a place where I can’t keep tabs on it.

Problem is, someone else sure would be keeping tabs on the data I access, filing my tastes and marketing more “items like that.” In Apple’s all-white, ethereal Zen puffy-cloud world — less hardware, more software — nothing feels like ownership anymore. I happen to find my peace in alphabetizing my discs and admiring the cache of colorful spines.

Not to mention, I hear horror tales about syncing and compounding (confounding!) digital clutter and incompatibility between “the cloud” and various programs, like QuickBooks. Although technology moves quickly, troubleshooting is never quick. And because there are competing clouds, with all-consumer-ing interests, no single omnipotent tech force is looking out for us.

Like leprechauns bowling in the sky, there’s bound to be a major cloud battle someday or unnatural data disaster, then poof! All the precious … up in smoke.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: I’ve looked at the cloud from both sides now, and I really don’t like clouds – at all.

Don’t mean to rain on your parade, Apple — but this cloud thing is where I get off.

On ‘free-range’ parenting and government outta line

Climbing-TreesA tree in the woods of Pennsylvania has my name on it. Mine and that of my childhood best friend, since we were 10. On Saturdays, with our schedules wide open, we organized our own activities, blissfully unsupervised, often ending up perched in this tree with its unusual horseback curve and naturally private setting, exchanging secrets and letting our imaginations run wild.

Its GPS coordinates are roughly 40.095735, -75.487208. Can’t be exact, because that area on Google Maps appears a dead zone, completely off the grid. I never could have imagined, as a youngster in the days of the Cold War, that I’d be able to closely pinpoint my “thinking spot” on the globe four decades later with the accuracy of a Soviet spy. Then again, so much about childhood and the world has changed since I was a kid.

I must weigh in on this flap in the news lately, about the Silver Spring, Md., parents who allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk home together from a neighborhood park a mile away, unsupervised, except by each other. A “concerned neighbor” called police and the children were picked up halfway home; the parents are now facing an investigation of neglect, courtesy of the child-services branch of government. I’m not a Libertarian nor anti-government, but this, my friends, is ridiculous. And quite sad.

All I can say, and continue to say, given today’s amped-up digital mill, is thank goodness I’m not raising kids in this era of hyper-suspicion, hyper-vigilance, hyper-paranoia and hyper-busybodiness. When my daughters were young in the early ’90s, it was with a mix of reservations and frustration that I begged them to go outside and play, on their own, just to afford Mommy a modicum of Me Time. We Baby Boomers were on the cutting edge of helicopter parenting, no question, and I was all in with that, glued to them, ever chaperoning, always nosing into their business. On the other hand, I celebrated the way I had been raised and tried to emulate it — my parents gave us ample elbow room, room to get into scrapes and carry the scars on our knees and, sure, on our psyches. I don’t regret a single one. Today I’m still fiercely independent. And I was relieved to learn, later in life, that my girls also had a private “thinking spot” in the glade, where they would escape for unmonitored solitude.

My mother has often told us the story of how her father forced her, at about age 12, to take her four younger brothers, the youngest around 4, onto the D.C. streetcar — just the five of them alone —and ride it to the end of the line and back. Don’t get off, he said, and he’d be there waiting for them at the end of the terror-filled (for my mom) trip. There were no cellphones then, no GPS for the common folk. It’s a defining memory for her, how she took responsibility for her brothers and kept them safe. Like pushing the baby bird from the nest to force it to fly, this is a standard parental ritual and obligation. Separation anxiety is a fact of life. Get over it.

kids-on-the-paris-subwayOne of my own most harrowing days as a parent also involved public transit, on the D.C. Metro system. It had been a long day doing museums or the zoo and we were heading home. My eldest, about 9, was still bursting with energy, gung-ho to board the last train, and she scampered down the escalator to get on. Her baby sister was poking along, so I hung back, near the bottom of the escalator, debating whether to pick the little one up or keep egging her on. Miki had just crossed the threshold of the train car when I heard “Doors closing.” I jet-fueled toward her with Cassy in my arms, but the doors, with their soul-sucking squinch, cut us off. Before the train started moving, I was literally nose-to-nose with my daughter through the thick plastic, mouthing the only thing I could think of “Go to Metro Center! WAIT FOR US THERE!” because I knew that’s where the Metro headquarters was, and I could have the staff at our station radio them to find my daughter and keep her safe. (I shoulda added: “I love you.”)

I was panic-stricken, to say the least. Losing a child in a crowd, in the city, has got to be the worst. I wondered whether any of her fellow passengers had seen what had happened and might step in and be a hero, calm my child, take the lead in helping us reunite. Cellphones weren’t common then, and we had no lifelines or even an emergency plan in place. While Cassy and I waited for the next train, off-peak and taking forever, I ran and told the man in the booth what had happened. He called over to the Metro Center folks to be on the lookout for her. In the meantime (and it was MEAN, time was, indeed), all I could do was assure my little one that her beloved sister was not gone forever, while secretly trying to convince myself.

Metro Center was two stops away, and I suddenly got a little worried Miki wouldn’t know the difference. After we boarded our slow-as-molasses train, I made sure to jump off at the station in between — while clutching my youngest in my arms — just to scan the platform, on the off-chance she was there instead. The entire platform, both ways, empty. Good. That was an unpopular stop, and I didn’t want her there. The density of population at Metro Center seemed somehow safer — it might prove more comforting to my extremely social and brave child, and she could at least find help if I couldn’t get to her first.

Once at Metro Center, there was no sign of Miki. I sprinted to the main office, breathlessly repeating our harrowing predicament. Before I could get through it, though, the woman stopped me, nodding; they had been waiting for me. But Miki was not here! She HAD gotten off at that other station, and was waiting in the booth with that guard. She knew enough not to stand on the platform but to find the guard and explain her story — and this became HER story in years to come, not mine, not a story of parental neglect or failure, but her own story of courage and independence and smart thinking.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the "L" in Chicago, modern-day.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the “L” in Chicago, modern-day.

Lucky for me, Miki was born with an internal GPS and street smarts. She always knew, even as a toddler during those hours of long commuting from home to day care to endless activities, where she was. She’s grounded with an uncanny homing device built right in. To this day, she keeps a “fix” on home, no matter how far away her travels may take her. I often wonder how much that day alone on the train shaped her sense of independence.

She’s now a big-city girl, living in Chicago. Her sister also lives there; neither one drives, both rely exclusively on public transit, with their jobs sometimes requiring that they stand on the “L” platform at 4 in the morning. Sure, I panic about that and suffer occasional parental nightmares. But I know there’s no sense in living in fear or worrying over what might happen, because we have no power over “mights.” (Or mites, for that matter.) Our worst nightmares can come true whether walking, riding in a car, on a plane, on a train or sitting in a meeting at work. We can be hit by a bus sitting in our own living rooms, as it barrels through the walls, true story.

I guess I’m lamenting the bygone days when kids roamed free and parents could relax. And I’m suggesting: Tamp down the fear, a tad, society. Give your children some space, encourage them to break free of confining screens and electronics, and explore ways to safely push them from the nest. Heck, we can even outfit our kids with GPS trackers, if they’re too young for phones, and keep tabs on them that way. Let’s use technology to our advantage — we should feel more peace of mind these days with such tools, not less — and let’s not over-schedule our children in “safe,” supervised activities or keep them trapped inside all day playing video games exercising only their eyeballs. And, please, give your neighbors some leeway on knowing how best to raise their children.

It’s OK to be concerned if you see youngsters walking alone, unsupervised. But don’t jump to conclusions or execute rash judgment. Keep your own eyes on them. Wouldn’t it have been better, rather than call police, for that worried person to have monitored them as well as possible, from a distance, and then know that the next neighbor would do the same … the whole village, down the line, on the lookout for our kids? But that, of course, might require we actually get to know our neighbors.

If those children had met the Big Bad Wolf along the way — one can only hope there would have been time and opportunity then to intervene. Tragedies do happen, and that’s the awful way of the world. But the bad news truly is the exception; that’s why it’s news. If more of us were simply looking out for each other, maybe we fellow shepherds and herdsmen could chase away the wolves and allow a mob rule of vigilance, not vigilantism, to rule the day.

One with the universe

10447027_10152514467382803_4815241321848240349_nNeil deGrasse Tyson is quixotic, hypnotic and “cosmotic,” a word he coined Tuesday night in D.C., at an event in which we breathed the same air and released a mix of carbon dioxide and hors d’oeuvres vapor directly into each other’s faces.

Gasp.

To say I was “starstruck” to shake this brilliant man’s hand and get a hug is an astronomical understatement. See, he makes you want to reach beyond the ordinary, he does.

I had helped work on a Cosmos-themed USA TODAY tab, in collaboration with National Geographic, and, given that my compatriot Jon Briggs and I talk about little else but black holes at the office, I was able to ditch one night for the privilege to attend, with Briggsy, the screening of the final episode of the show that picked up where Carl Sagan left off 34 years ago.

We didn’t arrive on time, but what’s a few minutes late to an astrophysicist?

In fact, our tardiness offered us prime real estate, as The Man of the Hour was edging toward the door as we darkened the threshold. Other groupies were lined up on the other side of a table, but we stepped promptly into his sphere, the back of his tailored suit much smaller than I expected. He turned and flashed that rock-star “Hello!” And then three kids materialized to steal his attention — which was cool, because what is deGrasse Tyson if not a teacher and mentor? He chatted up these three young boys (one not too young, as he tipped back a wine glass), asking them about their interests, their running times (deGrasse Tyson ran a 4:18 mile in his day), testing their reflexes … whatever it took to connect. He obviously is, and should be, their hero.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

He gets noticeably more animated — even more than the cartoons used in the Seth MacFarlane-produced miniseries — with impressionable younguns around. Hands down, the best part of the Q&A afterward was when a young girl asked him why solar flares occur.

His answer, here, gets progressively exciting.

‘Rendering It Aglow …

My own short Q&A with him rendered me aglow. For our picture together, he firmly grasped my shoulder, I wrapped my arm across his expansive back, and it was good. In fact, I was sweating when it was over, and I needed a cold beer to dab my brow and flesh with.

He wasn’t drinking beer, only wine. We chuckled about my ditching work (sincerest apologies to my co-workers). I shared that the series was “science porn” for me, as I watch it over and over — he raised both bushy eyebrows at that as I rendered him somewhat speechless. I also said I liked his dazzling tie and asked who designed it. Jerry Garcia? He gave me that curled-lip, bemused look, as if …

I overheard him discussing his interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and how whatever he said will be automatically “liberalized” — dGT loves coining words. He shies away from the icy political poles, displaying the perfect equanimity of a scientist.

Briggs was prepared to ask what was with all the SUV commercials on a show with the obvious agenda to battle climate change, but while I was busy being starstruck he was uncharacteristically struck dumb.

I managed one utterance of some substance: whether there would be more Cosmos — please? — or was it going to be like Carl Sagan’s series, kinda one and done. I think I said, “So … this is it, there won’t be any more, say it isn’t so… ” He first wanted me to clarify whether that was a statement or a question. Cute! When I phrased it properly as a question, he began, “I have never been much of a woman, but I imagine that after one gives birth that is not the best time to ask whether she’s ready to have another. Let’s just let it breathe a little and have its impact. … So this is hardly the right time to address that question.” He wasn’t stern or angry, just clear: He wasn’t out to one-up Sagan, and he never set out to be a TV star, plus the seven years it took him away from his family was exhausting.

He later rephrased that response in the general Q&A, and I wondered if I’d helped prep him or whether this was one of his “stock quotes.”

Either way, I relished staring into his knowing orbs, admiring his congenial way with each admirer and sensing how time stretches in his presence. Because this man is present.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer MitchellCannold.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer Mitchell Cannold. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Sagan’s widow, the lovely and poetic Ann Druyan, who writes the show and is its true nucleus, said: “Carl is one of those people whose absence is more powerful than most people’s presence.”

But deGrasse Tyson? HERE, HEAR. Present … and doing great work to resuscitate our curiosity about the world around us.

During the Q&A session, he revealed fun facts about the show’s production. Example: Although many of the nifty shots were filmed on location — he did tour the White Cliffs of Dover — the film crew opted not to shoot in Manhattan. So this Bronx native had to be green-screened in New York City. (Oh, and some of those Ship of the Imagination shots were green-screened, too — you read it here first.)

DeGrasse Tyson spoke eloquently about humanity’s fear of aliens, saying that if any extraterrestrials contacted us they would likely be in possession of some superior technology because they managed to traverse this great distance — something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. In every encounter between a population with better technology and one less advanced, though, as we’re well familiar, things don’t turn out as well for those with the lesser technology. We might expect to be enslaved, prodded, brains sucked out or worse.

He warned, though: Don’t project the hate that we know and apply to the unfamiliar in our own world onto them. Man’s inhumanity to man — fear of “others” — this is something we’d be advised to evolve far beyond, and fast. An advanced species, one hopes, would find our foul treatment of each other just as foreign as the most educated among us should.

This man may be the future face of education. Imagine his enthusiasm in a classroom, electrifying kids’ imaginations. We have the technology: Let’s hologram him in, if we can’t just clone him.

More clips from the Q&A (before my “lesser technology” died):

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses failure in the educational sense.

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to a question from the very D.C. crowd about whether he has a 2016 campaign in his future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson comments on whether his “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” has gotten him any closer to answering the age-old Q: “Why are we here?”

I think of my dad, who turns 90 next month and is legally blind. His love of stargazing taught us kids to look to the stars — not meaning celebrities — to corral our dreams, both personal and universal. Though his physical eyes can no longer harness the starlight to see, his inner light still shines. (A peek at my dad’s new blog on the universe, here.)

I’ll bet dGT is a fantastic dad, too.

Pique your curiosity. Catch the finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey yourself next Sunday night (June 8) on Fox or Monday night on NatGeo Channel (June 9). Watch it with a parent, a child, a sibling, friend or stranger — it’s the kind of entertainment that connects us. All 13 episodes will be available for purchase, appropriately, in time for Father’s Day.

A lesser birder’s first hard-core birding trip

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We were warned that birders were notoriously on time — that “on time” for them could mean up to an hour early. So naturally on Day One of our birding expedition in coastal Texas at the height of spring migration, my daughter and I nearly missed a 6:15 a.m. departure to Kingsville.

We wouldn’t make that mistake again.

As we strolled through the Omni lobby, admiring ourselves in new, starched floppy hats and flak vests, we hit George Armistead, American Birding Association’s membership director, nearly head-on. He had that caffeine-glazed, camp-counselor, coxswain aura about him: “Your van is leaving! I was just about to call you.” Then, in an aside to the finger-thrumming clipboard sentry: “The Byrnes are here and accounted for.”

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Gotta like-a Leica’s Jeff Bouton. (Photo courtesy of his website)

Tardiness proved advantageous. There was room for only one more to be stuffed into the government-issue white van, where each binocular-draped occupant was intently scoping us out. I was directed to ride in the “VIP” minivan — along with supernatural birding guide Jeff Bouton of Leica, local expert Larry and a spry, chipper 70-something birder from Quebec City, Richard Jones. His other hobby: tending roses.

My eyes aren’t the best, admittedly. Larry’s a bit hard of hearing. Richard? A hoot. As beastie birder Bouton, while driving 60 mph, identifies unheard-of birds darting across predawn skies or perched inconspicuously — the rest of us craning our necks for a great-tailed grackle or a mourning dove— our VIP van gets redubbed “The Short Bus.”

Our new pal Richard Jones

Our new pal Richard Jones, a retired university professor whose specialty was Canadian history. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Richard had already been birding for a week in Texas and tells of a chiggers assault at King Ranch. Despite stuffing his cuffs into his boots and stretching woolen socks over his calves and coating himself in bug spray like a basted chicken, he sustained 100-plus bites. Some, on his belly, are half-dollar-sized. He applied the standard birder remedy: dried, clear nail polish, intended to suffocate any clingy or burrowing mite. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t make it a habit!” Jones joshes. Bouton mutters: “And I thought the French were progressive …”

Now thoroughly spooked about bugs, I regret packing only a non-DEET eco-spray, a blend of cloves, cinnamon, peppermint and prayer. I am lovingly mocked.

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Some of our mottled krewe. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Within 70 minutes, we reach our first birding hotspot, a remote road across from a few houses backing to an inlet. Dogs bark, but we hardly notice over the babble of avian delights.

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Jen Brumfield in the field (Photo courtesy of her website)

The guide from the other van is a brawny woman dressed like a rapper, with hipster glasses, a black skull cap (it’s 90 degrees), black Eagle Outfitter-style safari shirt and caramel cargo pants. She’s also toting a scope and tripod near as tall as she is. Her voice is husky and certain. She wastes no time plucking species IDs out of thin air. “Brown-crested flycatcher, on the wire … Bewick’s wren, about to pop up … female painted bunting, on the fence … there’s the male … orchard oriole, 2 o’clock … dickcissel flying over … green jay in the mesquite … I hear a bobwhite, in the distance.”

She’s Jen Brumfield of Cleveland, a naturalist dynamo, who has already clinched — read “annihilated” — two Big Year records for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and raised its profile on the birding map. Jen has a knack for finding birds in strange places, such as the rare brown pelican hanging around Cleveland last summer. Her “Pelly” has its own Facebook page; officials made souvenir T-shirts of it; a local brewery is soon coming out with a tribute, Wandering Pelican Black Lager. Jen picked up Ohio’s first neotropic cormorant just days ago. This is the woman about to show me a treasure trove of birds. I ask her how long she’s been birding. Since age 2.

The bobwhite she pinpoints in a certain clump of grass 200 yards away. “It’s getting closer, moving toward us.” She impersonates the call. Her bird call repertoire is extraordinary.

The bobwhite is getting about as excited as I am. Closer and closer … and then BIG movement. A Cooper’s hawk railroads across the field, bangs into a fence and excavates the bobwhite from her happy place. Amid mournful groans, Jen notes the plump game bird was a female. She puts her scary-real bird calls on hiatus for the day.

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Birding behind a Mexican restaurant. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Meanwhile, my daughter and I are wearing so much gear, we feel like Navy SEALs. We move in formation with the group from hotspot to hotspot, from amber waves of grain, from sea to shining mudflat.

I rack up 157 life birds over four days, starting with the pair of brown boobies hanging out just outside the hotel near the break wall for the week, which George Armistead showed us through a scope as soon as we deposited our suitcases. Among other species that worm their way into my heart: the crested caracara, the hooded oriole, the inca dove.

I lack sophisticated photographic equipment, but here are a few shots I took using an iPhone and/or basic camera.

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Least sandpiper. Or pectoral sandpiper. I forget which. Can only tell when they’re side by side. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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A juvenile summer tanager. I think. Help me out here, peeps (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, terns do it. And  so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, bees do it. And so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

A male indigo bunting dines with a female ... something ... at the orange cafe. Photo by Terry Byrne

A male indigo bunting dines with a female … oriole? something … at the orange bistro. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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The pied-bill grebe I nicknamed “Nessie.” (Photo by Terry Byrne)

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala are.

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala roam. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

At King Ranch the third day, we enter a whole ‘nother world that feels more like Texas than J.R.’s empire. It’s eco-tourism nirvana, and larger than Rhode Island (poor R.I., always getting compared to breadbaskets). Cruising the ranch’s Norias Division, we marvel at unusual mammals alongside avian awes: nilgai (a spooky blue-hued cross between a deer and a cow, but not really, which is indigenous to India), javelina (feisty wild boar), hordes of white-tailed deer and a feral population of East African impala. We also spy roadrunners — but no coyotes, tumbleweeds nor IEDs marked “Acme.”

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Jim distracts some of King Ranch’s owners, who sneak up on us unexpectedly. At right is Calvin Rees, who can hardly go a day without photographing birds. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

King Ranch is home to 330 nesting pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls, accounting for 95% of the species’ North American population, explains our cowboy guide, Jim. He won’t guarantee the bird, but we end up seeing two, and I practice digiscoping — in layman’s terms, that’s taking a photo by mating one’s iPhone with a high-powered scope, aligning a pinprick of light with a pinhead lens, and crossing your digits. It’s an art, as demonstrated by Sharon “BirdChick.com” Stiteler the previous night over chow. I try. I keep my day job.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl, a target bird for my daughter, who lured it in by wearing her craft beer pygmy-owl shirt that day. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

I also manage to avoid bug bites but pick up one or two non-lodged ticks and enough plant life to seed a greenhouse. Matt Fraker, an XXXtreme birder-adventurer with sculpted back muscles, manages to pick up his 700th ABA life bird, a Botteri’s sparrow, posing in the prairie grass like something biblical.

That night is our one free night, with no seminars, presentations or potato dinner, so my daughter and I scope out a few local dives, bird a bit on our own and wind up at the hotel bar on the 20th floor.

After several sleep-deprived nights and craft brews, we get tipsy and decide to go rogue, conspiring to skip our planned field trip the next morning.

Matt's Botteri's sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Matt’s Botteri’s sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Just as I’m composing an e-mailed excuse to George, he appears before me, like Jiminy Cricket or a wagging-fingered, haloed angel on my shoulder.

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here to celebrate their life birds! Matt buys us all a round of top-shelf Don Julio’s tequila rocks to toast that little sparrow in the grass who remains clueless to the consummate joy it gave us hominids.

Birders perched on the bar. That's Matt, between my daughter and, far right. (Photo by bartender)

Birders perched on the bar. That’s Matt, between my daughter and me, far right. (Photo by multitasking bartender)

Matt also happens to have the next day “free” (no scheduled tours, but of course he’ll go birding) and offers to let us sleep in, until 6:30, and take us on a private tour of Choke Canyon to pick up a few straggler species we need. For me, that would be a pyrrhuloxia, which looks a lot like a diseased cardinal.

Matt Fraker, a manic birder.

Matt Fraker, manic master birder. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But instead of sleeping in, I wake with a start at 3 a.m., with visions of 127 Hours in my head. What if Matt is a serial killer who uses inexperienced birders to attract black vultures to his canyon lair? Why is it called “Choke” Canyon, anyway? Will we even have a cell signal out there? Am I a bad mother?

Matt point out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Matt points out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Corpus Christi’s Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But Matt, like all of the other birders at the ABA annual conference, proves cool and trustworthy. Instead of trucking out to Choke Canyon, he decides to take us to a closer, richer hotspot: Blucher Park, where we pick up nine warblers, watch a great kiskadee devour a songbird and a snake, and track a chuck-will’s-widow like Native Americans until it encircles us in awkward flight like a bat out of hell.

The chuck-will's widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

The chuck-will’s widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

We also run into many birders we know — new friends, old souls —  because by now we are a tight group of kindred spirits.

There’s Curtis, the recent widower who spent more than a decade living the gypsy-RV life with his bird-loving wife. He also happens to be related by marriage to someone I work with and is among the few who speak of things other than birds, from Shakespeare to sunsets.

And Peggy from Minnesota, never married, no children, finally retired and taking flight to see the world, connecting the dots of a life well-lived one small wonder at a time.

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Classy, cagey Eugenia doesn’t say much but reminds my daughter of Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Katharine Hepburn; when she speaks, prepare to be zinged. Friendly Raj is one of three physicians who hang together like a fraternity while looking out for the group’s welfare, making sure we stay hydrated. The couple from the Pacific Northwest seems a bit jaded, loath to glimpse yet another yellow-headed blackbird … until that magical Botteri’s sparrow pops their cherry and they light up like Christmas.

Daughter Cassy in her yellow birding hat and full eye makeup.

Daughter Cassy in her UV-blocking yellow birding hat and eye plumage. (Selfie by Cassy Byrne)

A May-December couple from Michigan share their own brand of heartache in a candid moment; the woman represents the only other ginger besides my daughter and puts her at ease about birding in full eye makeup. One of the Margarets is petite, pert and full of pronouncements with her encyclopedic knowledge, then turns out to be the first cousin of another friend at work. Another Margaret, from Oklahoma, is stunned to discover that Calvin attended her high school and knew her brother.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

It’s a small birding world, with boundless discoveries. And we have much to learn from these mostly tireless retirees — far beyond distinguishing the sound of a song sparrow from that of a Bewick’s wren.

Often when I meet someone who knows a birder, they describe them as being “big into birding.”

Yeah. I get it. Big Years. Big Days. Biggest Weeks.

There’s no other way to go about birding but in a big way.

That's me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

That’s me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

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.

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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.

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 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.

TheVoormanProblem

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.

0604_megan-ellison_Michael-Buckner-Getty-Images-300x30021

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